Haitian migrants cross the border between Mexico and the United States to request political asylum. – 12-02-2021 (Shutterstock)
By Hamed Aleaziz, BuzzFeed News
The Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights office raised an internal warning to immigration and border officials that deporting Haitians to their volatile home country risked violating US civil and human rights obligations and advised them against the practice in late August, according to an internal document obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The existence of a late summer internal warning about removals to Haiti from DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), including discussions of violating international standards, sheds new light on how some within the department had deep concerns about the safety of Haitians who could be sent back.
President Biden’s decision in September to begin a mass deportation campaign caused alarm among not only immigrant advocates, but also prominent Democratic politicians and highlighted how the White House was turning to restrictive policies in times of political crisis.
The CRCL office believed that if removals of Haitians, which had been on pause at the time of the warning in late August, resumed “any time in the near future,” it would put the DHS at risk of violating its human rights obligations. The office believed the pause in deportations back to Haiti was necessary due to the violence, political instability, and recent earthquake that led to severe damage and hundreds of deaths. Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection were told that DHS had already laid out how it was unsafe to return Haitians when the Biden administration granted them Temporary Protected Status (TPS) earlier this year.
“These conditions create a risk of danger to deportees due to perceived political opinion and/or individual demographic characteristics (e.g., a high risk of refoulement),” the civil rights office communicated to ICE and CBP officials on Aug. 31, according to the internal document obtained by BuzzFeed News. The memo also pointed to a recent Department of State travel advisory listing Haiti at the highest level of danger due to the likelihood of life-threatening risks.
Specifically, the CRCL office was concerned that restarting removals to Haiti would risk “refoulement,” a term for sending an asylum-seeker back to a country where they will likely face persecution, in violation of human rights and international refugee law. In the aftermath of the Biden administration’s decision to remove thousands of Haitians, United Nations officials publicly raised the possibility that the deportations had possibly led to refoulement.
“The situation for Haitians who have been deported back to Haiti is extremely dire,” said Nicole Phillips, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and legal director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance. “Everybody faces danger right now, but those who’ve been deported face an extra layer of danger.”
Phillips said many of those who were deported back to Haiti had not lived in the country for years, or owed money to people who helped them leave. As a result, she said deportees were at an increased risk of extortion and kidnapping from gangs.
A DHS spokesperson said that following the earthquake in August, deportations of Haitians were suspended, but that after the embassy in Haiti determined that conditions had improved, they were restarted.
“DHS worked very closely with the government of Haiti and the State Department to ensure that returns were done safely, including the dedication of resources in Haiti for the humane receipt of individuals,” the spokesperson said.
Throughout September, the Biden administration relied on the Title 42 policy, which cites the pandemic to give border agents the ability to quickly turn back asylum-seekers, as a means to remove Haitians from a camp in Del Rio, Texas.
In September and October alone, DHS officials used Title 42 to expel thousands of Haitians back to Haiti. The agency also sent back more than 250 Haitians through the more traditional “removal” process during that time, according to agency statistics.
Since the invocation of Title 42, DHS officials have referred to the act of returning someone to their home country under the policy as an “expulsion” separate from the typical “deportation” or “removal” process. The document obtained by BuzzFeed News refers to “removals” and “deportees” but focuses its warning on the act of returning people to potential danger in Haiti.
The advocacy group Witness at the Border reported this week that more than 9,000 Haitians have been returned to the country since the Biden administration began the mass deportations in September.
To justify the use of removing so many Haitians months after granting them TPS due to the instability in their home country, Biden administration officials have said that the conditions on the ground would allow for returns.
In an interview on CNN in September, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the decision to grant TPS earlier this year before explaining the new dynamics.
“We then continued to study the conditions in Haiti, as is our responsibility. And we made a determination, based upon the facts, that, in fact, individuals could be safely returned to Haiti,” he said on Sept. 26, several weeks after the message from the DHS civil rights officials made its way to ICE and CBP.
The situation on the ground in Haiti has only devolved in recent months following a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people, as well as the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse this summer. In its travel warning, the State Department notes that kidnapping is widespread and sophisticated. Elsewhere, violent crime, including armed robbery, is common and protests and demonstrations, which sometimes turn violent, are frequent.
“Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19,” the travel advisory states. Earlier in October, a group of 17 missionaries from the US and Canada were kidnapped for ransom. In recent months, kidnappings have shot up and instability has only grown, especially as a fuel shortage exacerbated Haiti’s deepening crisis.
In the days after the initial wave of mass deportations of Haitians began under the Biden administration, a lead UN official blasted the decision.
“The summary, mass expulsions of individuals currently underway under the Title 42 authority, without screening for protection needs, is inconsistent with international norms and may constitute refoulement,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement.
Even internally, the decision to deport Haitians has led to resignations and public criticism from longtime government officials and Biden appointees.
“I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs in control of daily life,” Daniel Foote, the US envoy to Haiti under the Biden administration, said in a resignation letter obtained by the New York Times.
A former Biden administration official at the State Department also wrote about his opposition to the deportations in an internal email to staffers upon his exit from his role.
A group of UN human rights experts also publicly criticized the Biden administration’s decision to deport so many in a short period of time.
“In expediting the collective expulsion of Haitian migrants, the United States is subjecting a group of predominantly Black migrants to impermissible risks of refoulement and human rights abuse without any individualised evaluation,” the experts said in a statement.