As the first planeloads of angry Haitian migrants arrived in Port-au-Prince on Sunday after being repatriated from the U.S.-Mexico border, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security defended the deportations, saying misinformation is behind the attempts to enter the United States.
Emphasizing that the administration is accelerating repatriation flights to Haiti and possibly other countries, Alejandro Mayorkas warned Haitians not to attempt the journey because it will not succeed.
In the past week, an unprecedented number of migrants, the majority of them Haitians, have flocked to the Del Rio port of entry in southern Texas, where they have been living in sordid conditions in makeshift camps underneath an international bridge. The images have ignited criticism of the Biden administration, and sparked a new border crisis at a time the president is trying to push immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship in Congress.
“We are very concerned that Haitians that are taking the irregular migration path are receiving misinformation — that the border is open or that Temporary Protected Status is available to them despite the fact they are arriving long after the date that presents the deadline for TPS eligibility,” Mayorkas said in a press call with journalists. “This is not the way to come to the United States.”
Mayorkas reminded Haitians that only individuals living in the United States prior to July 29 are eligible for TPS. The humanitarian relief allows undocumented migrants to temporarily live and work in the U.S. Haiti was given a new TPS designation in May, and following the July 7 assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, the eligibility date was pushed to late July.
“Irregular migration of the type that we are witnessing poses a serious threat to the migrants themselves,” Mayorkas said. “Trying to enter the United States this way is not worth the tragedy, the money or the effort.”
On Friday, DHS announced that it was accelerating deportation flights to Haiti after nearly 15,000 migrants arrived near the international bridge connecting Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña in Mexico. Three flights arrived in Haiti on Sunday, even as the director of the country’s Office of National Migration pleaded for a humanitarian moratorium, telling the Miami Herald that the prospects of welcoming back some 14,000 Haitians in the coming days is more than the country can handle.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, said she expressed her concerns about the deportations to Mayorkas in a meeting with local elected officials in the Haitian American diaspora. “The entire humanitarian crisis is untenable and extremely disturbing,” she said.
The migrants arriving in Haiti were picked up by bus after landing, many of them shielding their faces and demanding that journalists stop filming. One man, who declined to give his name and spoke to reporters with his face covered, said he had been living in Chile for about five years before paying more than $10,000 to travel from the South American nation to Mexico earlier this year. He had been in Mexico for a month when he decided to try to enter the U.S. through Del Rio in hopes of making it to Canada.
On Sunday, he called his deportation by U.S. authorities illegal, accusing U.S. immigration of taking him and other migrants at midnight after checking their surroundings to make sure they were not seen. The man said his plans are to return to Chile, where he has residency.
“I’ve already forgotten all of the systems in Haiti,” he said.
Other migrants expressed anger, as they repeated some of the misinformation while complaining about the money they spent to make the dangerous trek through the jungles of South America to get to Mexico. One mother said she left Chile for Mexico and then Del Rio because she had been told in Chile that if you had a child there you could enter the U.S.
“They did not give us a deportation letter,” she said about U.S. immigration. “They told us they were going to free us and send us to our family house in Florida and then we saw we were in Haiti.”
Another migrant said he spent about $17,000, and had sold his car and house to make the journey through 11 countries from Chile to Mexico. Describing the last few days in U.S. custody, he said, “I spent six days I never bathed, I never brushed my teeth.”
He was detained, he said, in Texas, describing it as “the one that has an open border.”
Haiti National Migration chief Jean Négot Bonheur Delva said migrants’ anger at being forcefully returned is understandable. His team, however, is prepared to support returning immigrants but “very concerned about the situation.” He arrived at Port-au-Prince’s international airport accompanied by police and representatives from the health ministry to check for COVID-19. Delva said 145 migrants arrived on the first flight, and the government was expecting 290 others.
Haitian officials said they have told the Biden administration that they cannot prevent a Haitian national from returning to their country, but have expressed concerns about the strain on the country. Mayorkas told journalists that Haitian officials have assured him that the country, which is strapped for cash and dealing with gang violence and kidnappings as well as the recovery from the Aug. 14 earthquake, can handle the returning migrants.
“We are very mindful of the tragedy of the earthquake. Nevertheless that tragedy is geographically contained and Haiti has indeed communicated quite clearly to us its ability to receive the flights of repatriations,” Mayorkas said.
U.S. officials are discussing how to provide funding to Haiti to help the country deal with the repatriations, Mayorkas said.
He did not elaborate on how U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is determining which migrants are to be repatriated and which will be temporarily paroled into the United States. Migrants who have been released also said they did not know how they were chosen, though a number of them either had children or were pregnant women.
Still, some of those who arrived back in Haiti Sunday came with children in tow or part of family groups. Mayorkas said the Biden administration is committed to “developing a safe, legal orderly pathway to migration.”
“What we are seeing now does not qualify as that. We have no choice at this point but to increase repatriation flights,” he said. “If an individual comes to the United States illegally, the individual will be repatriated to Haiti and possibly other countries. The journey will not succeed and individuals are endangering their lives and their family’s lives without the success that has been misrepresented to them.”
Miami Herald correspondent Johnny Fils-Aimé contributed to this story from Port-au-Prince.