Already grappling with coronavirus, a political crisis stemming from President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination last month and resulting gang violence, Haiti was hit with a two-punch 7.2-magnitude earthquake and tropical depression this week, leaving almost 2,000 dead and thousands more injured or missing.
Thousands are without shelter because some 83,000 homes have been destroyed. International aid has been slow to arrive, delayed by Tropical Storm Grace’s heavy rains, and some Haitians are frustrated that their own government hasn’t done enough to help.
Also of little help has been the United States, one of the contributors to Haiti’s political and economic troubles, which has the ability to aid Haitians attempting to flee the country due to its three most recent crises, but has instead prevented them from accessing the protection to which many of them are entitled.
The Biden administration has sent a search and rescue team to the island and is transporting medical personnel to the most hard-hit areas and carrying out evacuations. It is also distributing much-needed supplies, such as food, hygiene kits, and tents.
But the administration is still turning away Haitians who have chosen to flee in light of recent events. Thousands of Haitians are still stuck in Mexico on account of US policies, which currently allow asylum seekers and other migrants to be turned away on the basis of pandemic-related border restrictions, known as the Title 42 policy.
Many more Haitians may seek entry: Though it’s hard to estimate how many, the Darién Gap, a treacherous stretch of jungle and swamp on the border of Panama and Colombia that has functioned as a migrant corridor, has seen more crossings this year — at least 46,000 — than it has in the previous three years combined, and most of those attempting to navigate it are Haitians and Cubans.
The Biden administration has allowed more than 100,000 Haitians who arrived in the US before July 29, 2021, to apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which is typically offered to citizens of countries suffering from natural disasters or armed conflict. Those people are able to live and work in the US free of fear of deportation.
But that doesn’t help those who might be continuing to leave the country due to the political fallout from Moïse’s July 7 assassination, or now, in the aftermath of Saturday’s earthquake. What’s more, Haitians who have been prohibited from entering the US under Title 42, for which experts say there is no public health justification, appear indefinitely trapped in Mexico. And the US has continued to carry out deportation flights of Haitians despite the turmoil.
At the same time, the Biden administration has discouraged Haitians, as well as Cubans fleeing their communist regime’s recent crackdown on anti-government protesters, from trying to reach the US by boat. Officials have made clear that those who try will be intercepted by the US Coast Guard and will not be permitted to enter the US. Instead, they will either be repatriated back to Haiti or, if they can demonstrate the need for humanitarian protection, resettled in another country.
“The United States has deployed staff and resources to Haiti to help survivors of the earthquake, a vital step,” Wendy Young, the president of the immigrant legal aid group Kids in Need of Defense, said in a statement. “For the administration to then also send Haitians back into harm’s way would not only be senseless and cruel, but it would also deepen the grave humanitarian issues U.S. assistance is trying to address.”
The Biden administration could aid Haiti by rethinking policies that have barred Haitians from seeking refuge in the US. In light of the devastation from the earthquake and other recent crises, advocates are asking the administration to expand TPS for Haitians, indefinitely halt deportations and expulsions to the country, and allow Haitians at the US-Mexico border to temporarily enter the US on humanitarian parole.
These are all policy changes accomplishable through executive action. But the Biden administration has yet to try them, and its reticence may be undermining its Haitian foreign policy goals.
Open up legal pathways for Haitians to seek refuge in the US
The Biden administration could easily expand TPS eligibility for Haitians who have continued to arrive in the US beyond the July 29 cutoff date. It has already done so in recent months, pushing back the original cutoff date of May 21, 2021.
Beyond offering Haitians affected by the earthquake a pathway to protection in the US, allowing those affected by the earthquake entry into the US would bolster the Biden administration’s efforts to help Haiti recover.
Though the administration has already pledged millions in government funds for relief, granting TPS to more Haitians would give them the ability to work in the US and send money to their families back home, hastening the rebuilding process and stimulating a struggling economy. That can be a powerful tool for rebuilding: Haiti received $3.1 billion in remittances in 2020 alone, which represents almost a quarter of its GDP, and by some estimates, the US accounted for more than 80 percent of those remittances.
“An investment in the Haitian diaspora in the United States is an investment in a stable and strong Haiti and will benefit the United States,” Douglas Rivlin, a spokesperson for the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said in a statement.
Without these remittances, Haiti’s economic development and infrastructure will suffer, which could drive more people to migrate to the US.
The Biden administration could also revive a parole program for Haitians arriving on the southern border and elsewhere in the US. Starting in 2014, the Obama administration allowed some 8,000 Haitians to come to the US under what is known as the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program. Certain eligible US citizens and green card holders could apply for parole on behalf of their family members in Haiti who already had pending visa applications, but would have otherwise had to face years-long wait times.
Parole is granted only in situations where the Department of Homeland Security finds there are pressing humanitarian concerns or determines doing so would significantly benefit the public. The program was designed to help Haiti recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake that displaced hundreds of thousands of people, in part by increasing the remittances that Haitian migrants could send to their family back home.
The Trump administration, however, terminated the program in 2019. Over 130 human rights, humanitarian, immigration, and women’s rights organizations have supported reviving the program, but the groups are also calling for an even broader parole program that would apply to any Haitian arriving at a US border.
End pandemic-related restrictions at the border
The US continues to turn away the majority of migrants arriving at the southern border — including Haitians — under pandemic-related border restrictions, with exceptions for unaccompanied minors, some families from Central America with young children, and people who were sent back to Mexico to wait for their court hearings in the US.
Last March, at the outset of the pandemic, then-President Donald Trump invoked Title 42, a section of the Public Health Service Act that allows the US government to temporarily block noncitizens from entering the US “when doing so is required in the interest of public health.”
The policy has allowed US immigration officials at the southern border to rapidly expel more than a million migrants since the outset of the pandemic. Though scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) opposed the policy initially, arguing there was no legitimate public health rationale behind it, then-Vice President Mike Pence ordered the agency to follow through with it anyway.
What’s more, public health experts have repeatedly said that migrants can be processed and admitted to the US safely. Indeed, this is already occurring on a small scale as some migrants are being tested for Covid-19 with private funds before they are allowed to cross the border.
Biden has not overturned the policy, despite outcry from immigrant advocates and humanitarian groups who say it prevents migrants from exercising their right under US and international law to seek asylum.
Yet the CDC nevertheless issued an updated order recently saying that the policy would remain in effect until the agency’s director determines that migrants no longer pose a “serious danger to the public health” in terms of spreading Covid-19. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, have continued to insist that they are merely deferring to public health experts at the CDC in opting to continue enforcing the policy.
But keeping the order in place has serious humanitarian consequences for migrants trapped in Mexico.
Haitian Bridge Alliance, an organization that provides services to Black migrants at the border, estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 Haitians are still stuck in Mexico on account of Title 42, and most of them have been waiting between 18 months and five years for a chance to apply for asylum. They have reported facing discrimination in Mexican border towns, where they fear retribution from police or local armed groups.
“The administration should ensure that all Haitians and those seeking protection whose lives and safety are at risk are afforded the opportunity to request protection at our borders and at all ports of entry to the United States,” Young said.
Halt deportations and expulsions to Haiti
Many Central American families have been sent back to Mexico after being expelled at the US border. But many Haitian families have been sent back to their home country directly because the Mexican government has refused to take them back. The Biden administration briefly paused deportation flights to Haiti earlier this year due to escalating political violence. But officials have since chartered dozens of deportation flights to Haiti, despite the fact that many of those being sent back had no communities to return to.
One plane, carrying more than 130 people, including children as young as two, landed two days before the earthquake, said Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance. She said that one recent deportee seeking help from her organization had gone to live with his sister, his only family member left in Haiti, but that sister, along with her husband and two children died in the earthquake.
There are no US deportation flights scheduled this week, but they could resume anytime thereafter. Jozef said that she wants a more long-term commitment — not one that lasts just a few days or weeks, which is not enough time for the conditions on the ground in Haiti to meaningfully improve. The administration has already acknowledged how dire those conditions are when it announced that it was partially expanding its Haitian TPS program last month.
“The Biden Administration should immediately cease deporting and expelling Haitians so as not to cause additional and needless suffering and harm,” Young said.