The Biden administration is ramping up deportation flights of migrants to as many as seven a day and talking to Brazil and Chile to possibly repatriate Haitians who previously resided in those countries as they scramble to contain the fallout amid bipartisan criticism.
But even as the Department of Homeland Security tries to draw a hard line, more than 1,000 migrants who had been under the Del Rio International Bridge have been allowed into the US, according to an area organization that has helped those released.
Senior Biden officials, meanwhile, have been called to answer to the images of migrants in squalid conditions and aggressive confrontations with authorities. On Wednesday, the Congressional Black Caucus met with top officials at the White House.
“I articulated the legal rights of the Haitian migrants and made it emphatically clear that those seeking asylum are not to be struck by those on Horses and that other legal rights must be protected!” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in a tweet.
The influx of Haitians at the US southern border is an example of just how far the flow of migrants extends, the toll of the pandemic on Latin America and the complexity of the issue that’s dogged the Biden administration for the better part of the year.
In a briefing with congressional staff Tuesday, DHS said they it been tracking the steady flow of Haitians but smugglers suddenly dropped them off in one location, when asked why they were caught off guard, a congressional aide who was briefed told CNN.
Biden and top officials have faced growing criticism from both Democrats and Republicans over their immigration policies as they’ve wrestled with the ongoing crisis at the US-Mexico border that’s caught the administration flat-footed.
President Joe Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee diplomatic efforts with Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador at the height of the surge of unaccompanied minors at the US southern border earlier this year.
Wednesday, the White House released a readout between Harris and Mayorkas, in which the Vice President raised “grave concerns” about the treatment of Haitian migrants – a rare move and indication the White House is looking to highlight Harris’ engagement on the issue.
But the migrants who converged in Del Rio, Texas, over the past week aren’t from Northern Triangle countries; rather they are primarily from Haiti and had been living in South America for several years. Harris sidestepped answering whether she will expand her role to include Haitian migrants when asked Tuesday.
Senior officials, including Harris, have traveled to Central America as part of their efforts to improve conditions and create legal pathways to migrate to the US. But in the interim, they’ve had to rely on a controversial Trump-era border policy and navigate the political pressures of appealing to members of the President’s party while deterring migration.
“We’re getting it under control,” Biden said, when asked about the situation on the US southern border as he departed the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday.
The Haitians who amassed under the Del Rio international bridge had lived in South America for years after fleeing the devastation left behind by the 2010 earthquake, moving around the continent in search of job opportunities.
Most recently, DHS had temporarily stopped removal flights to Haiti, in the wake of a devastating earthquake and assassination of the President. Immigrant advocates, concerned that returning Haitians to an unstable country would be putting them in harm’s way, welcomed the move. The Obama administration similarly paused deportations after the 2010 earthquake.
This year’s pause, though, may have also been seen as an opportunity and contributed to Haitians surging the US-Mexico border, current and former officials say. And now, the administration, which only weeks ago granted humanitarian relief to Haitians in the US because of the country’s instability, is deporting Haitian migrants to Haiti – angering immigrant advocates and Democratic lawmakers.
Migration heats up in Latin America
Migration has ebbed and flowed over the years, and demographics of who’s crossing has evolved, from Mexican single adults, to families and children from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, to a growing number of migrants from other countries, like Haiti.
This year, there’s been an unprecedented flow of migrants, including Haitians, crossing the Colombia-Panama border, Panama’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Erika Mouynes previously told CNN. “It’s extremely concerning,” she said.
There are up to 30,000 Haitians in Colombia who may be seeking to travel north, CNN has learned. The department is tracking between 40,000 to 60,000 Haitians in the hemisphere, though they are not necessarily seeking to come to the US, according to the congressional aide. Recently, Mexico also stopped some buses of Haitians coming north, DHS said, according to the aide.
“The biggest problem we’re currently facing is the bad news that we’re receiving from the United States. Deportation might happen and there’s always been deportation. … The problem is not that they’re deporting people but the way they’re doing it, which isn’t good,” Aldemar Brok, a Haitian migrant who’s in Colombia, told CNN.
More than 97% of Haitians migrating irregularly do not come directly from Haiti, but rather were residents of countries in South America, such as Chile and Brazil, according to the Panamanian government. Panama expects to receive at least 150,000 migrants crossing the country on the way to the US by end of this year. As of early September, more than 70,000 migrants arrived in Panama in 2021, more than 30,000 of whom are from Haiti.
“Two forces seem to be colliding at the same time,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, citing the Covid-induced recession in Latin America that’s exacerbated issues in the region and a growing US economy.
“The Biden administration has made it easier for unaccompanied minors and families to enter the country, at the same time that the US economy is also heating up, and that has created incentives for people to try to migrate while they can,” Selee said.
Authorities in South America have been monitoring the increased movement of migrants in the region for months. Many migrants who are fleeing worked informal jobs before the pandemic, and were especially vulnerable to falling into extreme poverty as economies tightened last year.
Migrants from Cuba and Haiti often pass through a perilous jungle, known as the Darién Gap, which spans across Panama and Colombia’s border, in their journey to the US. Most of the people that attempt the journey are searching for a second opportunity, according to CNN interviews with dozens of migrants as well as town authorities.
Georgina Ducleon, originally from Haiti, lived in Rio de Janeiro for more than six years, she told CNN in August while traveling with her two young children. Their family lost their income when the pandemic broke out and Rio entered lockdown, Duclean said, and they no longer believe a future is possible there.
A former Homeland Security official said there’s been pent up demand among Haitians living in South America for some time.
“Coming north wasn’t an option since they were being returned under Trump,” the former official said. “As soon as that changed, we see the massive pull factor for a ready-to-travel population without deep routes and community intel on social media on the journey and smuggling route.”
The Biden administration is still relying on a public health authority, known as Title 42, that was put in place at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and allows border authorities to turn away migrants encountered at the US southern border. Senior administration officials have cited that authority in arguing that the border is effectively closed.
Between October and August, more than 950,000 migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border have been swiftly removed. Over recent months, though, the US has gradually admitted more families. In August, more than 70,000 migrant families were allowed into the US, while around 16,000 were expelled, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.
A federal judge recently ruled that the administration can no longer subject families to the public health order. The Biden administration appealed that ruling.
In the administration’s effort to distance itself from former President Donald Trump’s restrictive immigration agenda and strike a note of compassion, Biden officials have often sent conflicting messages about who’s allowed into the US and when.
The United States is running more than 30,000 radio ads a month in Central America to deter migration. The ad campaign is designed to combat a range of factors driving migrants to the US-Mexico border, including misinformation spread by smugglers and the widespread belief among migrants that border enforcement has been relaxed under the Biden administration.
But migrants are also hearing, via word of mouth or social media, that people are being released into the US, undermining the administration’s message.
“One of the issues we’re seeing with the administration’s response is that they adopt measures to address one set of migrants coming to the border and then another group of migrants come that present new challenges,” said Cris Ramon, an independent immigration consultant. “You’re seeing the administration treading water because it can’t resolve one migration issue as another one emerges.”
CNN’s Rosa Flores and Stefano Pozzebon contributed to this report.