By Sam Bojarski and Onz Chery
On Sept. 2, eight Haitian migrants were intercepted off the coast of West Palm Beach. Ten days later, 104 Haitian migrants were caught 12 miles off Miami on Sept. 12. Later on Sept. 16, thousands of Haitian migrants crossed the Mexico-U.S. border from various Latin American countries and are under a bridge in south Texas, The Washington Post reported.
Haitian-Americans watching these unfold are worried about the increased frequency of their compatriots attempting to seek refuge in the U.S. recently. It’s a testament to how horrid the living conditions are in Haiti, they said.
“It’s like there’s no hope back home, that’s the frustrating part,” said filmmaker Jean-René Rinvil. “You have kidnapping, assassination, there’s no opportunity in the country. What do you want the people to do? None of us can blame them for looking for a better life for their family.”
Haiti’s ongoing crises indeed stirred the rise of Haitian migrants, experts said. Haiti is in the midst of recovering from a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Aug. 14, killing at least 2,200 people. One month prior, President Jovenel Moïse was shot 12 times in his home on July 7. Gang members engage in gang shootings on a regular basis in Port-au-Prince. In the months preceding the assassination, gangs in Port-au-Prince had perpetrated massacres around the capital and frequently kidnapped residents for ransom.
For the thousands of Haitians who had moved to Chile, Brazil and other Latin American countries over the past several years, some said, the specter of going back to Haiti under such conditions prompted them to make it to America through the Mexico border.
Since October of last year, the Coast Guard has reported the interdiction of 486 Haitian migrants at sea. Last year, 418 Haitian migrants were interdicted during the fiscal year, which goes from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
Trying to escape Haiti’s crises, one migrant intercepted at sea on Sept. 12 required high-level medical care, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The two groups of migrants caught at sea were repatriated just days later. As for the migrants in South Texas, the Biden administration plans to start removing them back to Haiti Sunday. Some Haitian-American advocates denounced the Biden administration for sending them back to Haiti where their life is in danger.
“At a time when Haiti is in need as a result of this ongoing political turmoil and this earthquake and storm, we need the world to make sure that the Haitian population is protected,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance. “There are so many things going on… we are asking for humanitarian parole, humanitarian protection, for Haitian nationals seeking asylum, seeking refuge.”
Repatriations plus deportations
The Biden administration has had 37 deportation flights to Haiti since Feb. 1, each one likely carrying dozens of people.
On Sept. 15, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) expelled 86 Haitian nationals to Haiti under Title 42, a pandemic-era law that effectively prevents migrants from seeking asylum under public health pretenses. Haiti continues to recover from a presidential assassination and an August earthquake that has killed at least 2,200 people.
Immigration advocates have called the deportations “morally indefensible,” and federal lawmakers like Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley have also weighed in.
“That ICE would continue to carry out the mass deportations of our Haitian neighbors – with Haiti in the midst of its worst political, public health, and economic crises yet – is cruel and callous,” Pressley said in a statement.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the political instability resulting from the Moise assassination in July, when he extended the eligibility deadline for Haitians seeking Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to July 29.
But Haitians have continued to attempt the journey to the U.S. by sea and land since the deadline, and thus protections for Haitians residing in the U.S., ended. Journalists at the southern border with Mexico have reported that at least 9,000 Haitians are waiting to cross into the U.S.
The Haitians removed on the Sept. 15 flight — the first such flight since last month’s earthquake — crossed the border after July 29. It included children under the age of 3 and former residents of earthquake-ravaged Les Cayes, said Jozef, citing a confidential source.
Advocacy groups like the Haitian Bridge Alliance have consistently demanded that the Biden administration halt removal flights due to political instability and persistent gang violence in Haiti. The White House has not responded to a request for comment.
A Coast Guard spokesperson cited a bilateral agreement with Haiti as justification for repatriating migrants. The agreement stems from 1980s U.S. policy that suspended the entry of undocumented migrants intercepted at sea. Despite pleas from legal advocates that repatriations could occur without determination of a migrant’s refugee status, a 1993 Supreme Court decision upheld the legality of these repatriations.
This ruling “gives the administration legal cover” to repatriate Haitian migrants, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University.
The Biden administration has multiple options at its disposal to address Haitian migrants. However, it risks political opposition from Republicans, as lawmakers try to agree on a budget reconciliation bill, and demands for equitable treatment from other immigrant groups, Yale-Loehr said.
“For those Haitians who are at the border, theoretically the administration could grant them Deferred Enforced Departure or humanitarian parole just like they’re doing for people from Afghanistan,” Yale-Loehr said. “The question is whether they are willing to do any of them.”
Need to solve Haiti’s problems highlighted
The most effective way to end the wave of Haitian migrants is to solve Haiti’s ongoing crises, some Haitian-Americans said. But it’s a strenuous task that is a long way off.
“There has to be an international plan for Haiti, first for the people to be safe,” said Rinvil, who is also against the Haitians migrants’ repatriation.. “But unfortunately, even after the assassination we all see that nothing is happening. There’s no help at all as far as security measures in the country.”
For Rinvil, the frequency of Haitians taking to the sea brings back awful memories of the 1970s and 1980s for some Haitian-Americans. Between 1972 and 1981, about 55,000 Haitian migrants moved to Florida. Referred to then as “boat people,” Haitian-Americans started being stigmatized during this period.
Rinvil, of Tampa, said his father, Ramil Rinvil, moved to Florida by sea during the 1980s. He later worked as a mechanic and raised four children. The younger Rinvil, 48, became a filmmaker because he wanted to change the “boat people” narrative about Haiti and other negative stories.
“It’s like you spend your entire life trying to change Haiti’s image, but every day you wake up, the image is getting uglier,” Rinvil said.