MIAMI — A worrying rise in the number of Haitian refugees arriving by boat off the Florida coast is raising questions about a long-standing immigration practice that determines why some fleeing migrants are processed into the United States and others are quickly returned back to Haiti despite making it into U.S. territorial waters.
In at least four different boat arrivals in the past five months, Haitian migrants who jumped off unseaworthy, overloaded vessels and into the waters off the Florida Keys were plucked out by federal agents and brought to land for processing — while those who stayed onboard were transferred to U.S. Coast Guard cutters for repatriation.
One of the latest examples of the practice came Saturday, when 113 Haitian nationals on board an overloaded sailboat jumped into the shallow waters off the Florida Keys while 200 others remained on the vessel. Those who remained on board the boat were placed on a Coast Guard cutter for repatriation to Haiti.
Three days later, a similar scenario played out when a second boat arrived on Monday night after running aground in the shallow waters off the Middle Keys. By the time federal agents arrived, 109 people were already on land and had been taken into custody. However, 14 others who remained on the boat were immediately taken away by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“This ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy and sort of strict adherence to it has been a concern to advocates for 30 years. It is for that very reason it is very, very dangerous,” said Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services, which is run by the Archdiocese of Miami. “People jumping into the water to avoid captured interdiction, it’s really dangerous and it always has been.”
McGrorty said while he understands “the policy of deterrence, deterrence should not be worse than what it is trying to deter, and we can’t risk people’s lives this way. They should be taken in, they all should be given” interviews to establish they have a credible fear if they are returned to Haiti.
Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, says U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection are guided by a protocol forged out of a 1993 Supreme Court decision that upheld both presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton’s policy of returning Haitians intercepted at sea back to Haiti without an asylum hearing – unless they say they have credible fear of harm if they are returned.
But while there is a protocol on what to do about those found on board, he suspects what is happening is the result of a lack of policy governing what to do about those found wading or swimming in territorial waters.
“Once you’re in territorial waters, and they are not on the Coast Guard cutter, the fallback arrangement is to bring them to land. What happens on land, we don’t know,” Chishti said, echoing another concern among Haitian advocates about the Department of Homeland Security’s veil of silence surrounding Haitian migrants. “They don’t have a protocol to deal with people who are not on boats and since they don’t, they treat them as if they have entered the U.S. territory and then they treat them for asylum screenings somewhere on land.”
Like McGrorty, Chishti believes that the practice is “an incentive for people to take risks,” which he called “disturbing.”
Biden’s Haitian immigration
Since January, the administration has forcibly repatriated more than 20,000 Haitian migrants, including more than 6,100 intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard, according to the United Nations’ Office for International Migration. The repatriations have surpassed that for all of last year, when 19,629 Haitians were repatriated from the U.S., and consist mostly of border crossers who came into the U.S. at the Mexican border.
Still, while more Haitians have been expelled in the first seven months of the Biden administration compared to the last seven months of President Donald Trump, Chishti said one “cannot say that we are systematically discriminating against all Haitians.”
“Many Haitians are deported, but you also have to be truthful that many Haitians are not,” Chrishti said, referencing a study by him and a colleague for the Migration Policy Institute that shows that despite public perceptions, a higher number of Haitians have been allowed into the U.S. and not been subjected to rapid expulsions under the controversial Trump-era, COVID-19-related public health law known as Title 42. “We cannot say that there is an across-the-board racist policy toward Haitians. I can’t support there. Is there a disparate policy? Sure.”
Tom Ricker, who writes the blog Quixote, said while his own analysis of Customs encounters of Haitians at the border show more migrants are being allowed in than quickly expelled, it doesn’t mean that Haitians are being allowed to stay long-term, and many are being sent back to Haiti after several months.
Among migrants encountered at the U.S. southern border who end up on a flight back home, Haitians still lead the way, Ricker said, arguing that “as immigration policies have gotten worse and worse, usually the worst gets tried against Haitians first, from detention to even the (Title 42) flights.”
“Many more Haitians are expelled as a percentage of encounters as opposed to folks from Nicaragua or Venezuela. It’s still a very discriminatory process,” he said.
Lack of clear immigration policy
Advocates say the fact that they do not know what’s happening with Haitians after they either cross the border or taken ashore after arriving by boat is frustrating and raises concerns about whether they are getting due process to state their asylum claims.
“Based on what we are seeing now, I don’t think there is a clear immigration policy,” said Cassandra Suprin, family defense program director for Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, which works with migrants. “We are noticing a pattern. Title 42 is still being applied at the border, people intercepted at sea are being expelled, and people reaching U.S. soil are sometimes processed. Still, we aren’t sure what happens to all of the people and don’t have clarity on why.”
Suprin also said she doesn’t think the administration’s approach toward undocumented Haitians trying to reach the U.S. is going to create a deterrent.
“At this point, there should be some sort of mechanism to see how they can at least be afforded the opportunity to request for asylum. Given the situation in Haiti, I don’t think what is going on right now is going to deter them,” she said. “There is a political issue in Haiti and this is not going to deter people when they have a genuine fear.”
A year after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, Haitians continue to face hardship, as inflation nears 30%, kidnappings surge and an increase in gang violence make living in the country risky and hopeless for many.
Over the weekend a former Haitian senator, Yvon Buissereth, who worked for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, was burned alive in his car along with a relative by a criminal gang as they traveled in an upscale neighborhood not far from the Pelerin 5 neighborhood where Moïse was assassinated.
Last month, gang violence in Cité Soleil, the country’s largest slum, left more than 470 people either dead, injured or missing over a span of nine days, according to the U.N. The violence, which has forced the displacement of thousands of Haitians, has according to UNICEF left 1 in 20 children at risk of dying from severe malnutrition.
‘Haiti has never been that bad’
“I am a born and raised Haitian and Haiti has never been that bad,” said Tessa Petit, the co-executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Petit said she believes that despite being allowed in after being plucked out of the waters, Haitians are quietly being returned back to Haiti after being taken to a detention center where they are given to something to eat.
“It was reported to us that they were actually put on planes out of Florida, flown to other states where from there they are deported back to Haiti,” she said. “Some are allowed to apply for asylum, but if the person doesn’t know what to say or how to seek asylum they are deported by flight. That’s what we were informed.”
Petit said it is clear that there continues to be disparate treatment of Haitian migrants in comparison to others and this is why she and other advocates are continuing to push for humanitarian parole for Haitians.
She and others also want an extension of Temporary Protected Status, the immigration relief extended to Haitians after last July’s assassination of the president, which allows them to legally work and live in the U.S. on a temporary basis.
“What we are also working on and gearing ourselves to do is demanding from the administration not only to extend TPS for Haitians come February 2023, but also that they do a re-designation and move the date of the re-designation, because the data shows that Haiti is unsafe,” she said. “It is unsafe for political reasons, which is the same reasons they are using for Venezuelans.”
Petit said when one considers the number of Haitians arriving in Puerto Rico and The Bahamas, it is clear that there is an ongoing “mass exodus” of Haitians by sea.
“If they are not finding any other options, and the U.S. embassy is not giving out visas… they are are going to look for the next way out, which is to get on a boat because Haiti has really gotten to a point where it is unlivable and unbearable.”