While much is uncertain, the civil unrest sweeping Cuba and Haiti very possibly will increase the number of asylum seekers coming to the United States from the Caribbean Basin. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ response to the fallout in both countries was adamant: “If you take to sea, you will not come to the United States.”
But as the number of atrocities committed near our shores continues to mount, our government must not ignore its humanitarian obligations. Specifically, Mayorkas must honor a principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Right now, this right is being undermined by policies that Mayorkas, in coordination with the president and other federal agencies, can change.
Whether arriving by land or sea, asylum seekers today confront looming barriers. Mayorkas mentioned one in his remarks on Cuba and Haiti — the longstanding U.S. policy known as interdiction, whereby migrants on the high seas often are quickly deported to their country of origin. These deportations are swift and unappealable, making the victims of interdiction largely unseen and unheard. Coast Guard press releases from past months about the interdiction of Haitians and Cubans are quick to note the compassionate care given them at sea. However, these press releases do not mention the availability of Spanish-language or Haitian Creole interpreters to help screen for asylum eligibility or, for that matter, any steps to screen for asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief.
For many, the risk of persecution in Cuba and Haiti is not remote. In Cuba, security forces have brutally repressed dissent, detaining hundreds since protests began. Cuban human-rights monitors in contact with international organizations go to great lengths to update the tally of detained or disappeared dissidents, at risk of their lives.
In Haiti, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse has precipitated further instability and, despite the selection of a new prime minister, illegal armed groups, often financed by powerful politicians, serve as a de facto government in much of Port-au-Prince. A letter to President Biden from Haitian Bridge Alliance amplifies one resident’s question: “If the country is not safe enough for its own president, how can it be safe for someone like me?”
Proper screenings are necessary to determine who is at risk, even if a migrant was intercepted at sea. Yet those who come by land may not fare better in their search for refuge. A second barrier is a March 2020 order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gives Homeland Security sweeping power to turn away asylum seekers at border crossings — supposedly on public-health grounds.
Stephen Miller, a Trump adviser with ties to white-nationalist groups, had once proposed using public-health arguments as a pretext to expel asylum seekers at the border. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Trump administration adopted Miller’s proposal, using the pandemic and an obscure statute, Title 42, to keep asylum seekers out. The Biden administration has yet to rescind the order, even though our population has only slightly lagged national targets for vaccination, and doses are being donated to other countries. Homeland Security’s own statistics show that at least 197,043 people were turned away through Miller’s expulsion policy last fiscal year, effectively violating the right to seek asylum.
As Haitians and Cubans undertake their struggles for basic human rights, the United States should recommit to protecting those who are forced to leave their homelands. The double bind of interdiction and Title 42 expulsion undermines the right to seek asylum. DHS must, at a minimum, ensure that those fleeing by sea are given proper screenings for fear of persecution and torture, with access to interpreters.
Our government must also advise Biden, in coordination with the CDC, to rescind the ineffective March 2020 measure that was hatched by Trump’s White House over the objection of public health experts. Those same experts should be in charge of formulating a policy that protects everyone, including immigrants and asylum seekers.
Of course, these two policy changes are not political solutions to the problems in Cuba or Haiti. Nevertheless, their effect on individual lives cannot be overstated. These changes can save the lives and mitigate the suffering of those fortunate enough to escape violence and repression.
Felix Montanez is a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project.