Why Are Haitian Migrants Gathering at the U.S. Border?

In Brief

Why Are Haitian Migrants Gathering at the U.S. Border?

The arrival of tens of thousands of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has generated domestic criticism from all sides that the Biden administration has poorly handled a cascading humanitarian crisis.  

What happened at the U.S.-Mexico border in September?

Over two weeks, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended or expelled nearly thirty thousand migrants, the majority of them Haitian nationals sheltering near Del Rio, Texas. Widely circulated images of Border Patrol agents on horseback attempting to prevent migrants from crossing the Rio Grande triggered renewed debate over President Joe Biden’s immigration policy.

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By September 24, federal authorities had finished clearing an encampment that had housed up to fifteen thousand Haitian migrants. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas reported that two thousand of those migrants had been deported to Haiti on U.S.-chartered flights and eight thousand had willingly returned to Mexico. The administration allowed twelve thousand migrants to enter the United States and have their requests for asylum or other permission to remain in the country evaluated by U.S. immigration judges. An additional five thousand migrants are being considered for the same opportunity.

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This incident is part of a sharp increase in attempted border crossings over the past year and a half. In March 2020, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Donald Trump administration began using Title 42, an emergency public health order allowing for the immediate expulsion of migrants. Since then, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has expelled most migrants detained at the border without considering their asylum claims, as usually required by U.S. law. The Biden administration has continued to uphold Title 42 and maintains restrictions on where and how migrants can apply for asylum. In July 2021, CBP announced that it had stopped 212,672 migrants at the border, a 21-year high.

Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande to get to the United States.
Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande to enter the United States. The Washington Post/Getty Images

What is driving the surge of Haitian migrants to the United States?

Haiti has recently suffered fresh experiences of both political instability and natural disasters: earlier this year, a group of mercenaries assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moise, and an earthquake left more than two thousand people dead. But corruption, poverty, and violence have long spurred migration, and for most Haitians at the U.S.-Mexico border, their arrival is the culmination of a years-long journey.

Following a devastating earthquake in 2010, many Haitians emigrated to South America. One of their first destinations was Brazil, where preparations for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics offered promising job prospects. But the COVID-19 pandemic made employment opportunities scarcer, and countries in the region closed their borders. Chile, one of the top Latin American destinations for Haitian migrants, enacted a restrictive new immigration law. As a result, many Haitians began a perilous northward march. 

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Fear of violence, particularly from organized crime, informs where they attempt to cross. Rumors spread that the area around Del Rio was a relatively safe crossing site, reportedly pushing migrants to congregate in camps in the vicinity. But this is only part of a broader migration wave. Officials in Colombia told the BBC that nineteen thousand migrants, primarily Haitians, were waiting to cross the border into Panama.

What is behind the Biden administration’s response?

The administration has been clear that its use of deportation flights is intended to deter future migrants. Officials have told reporters they believe that deportees, upon arriving in Haiti, will share their experience and convince would-be migrants to avoid the journey.

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The reliance on Title 42 to carry out expulsion flights remains controversial. It has been challenged in a lawsuit by advocacy groups, and it led Daniel Foote, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, to resign over what he called the “inhumane and counterproductive decision” to deport the migrants. While the administration continues to defend Title 42 in court, its use has slowly declined. In January 2020, more than 80 percent of enforcement actions at the U.S.-Mexico border were Title 42 expulsions; by August 2021, less than half were. 

The administration’s public embrace of a relatively aggressive expulsion policy could be calculated to shore up perceived political weaknesses, much to the frustration of immigration advocates. In public polling, Biden has so far received low marks on his handling of immigration. With leading Republicans criticizing what they see as chaos at the border, some within the administration also argue that aggressive enforcement is necessary to gain congressional support for broader immigration reform.

What other options does the administration have?

The administration could choose to restore the previous asylum rules, or even expand opportunities for Haitian migrants to apply. This summer, the administration indicated its desire for a deeper reform of the asylum process, but without congressional support for additional resources, it has limited tools. Biden did take executive action to ensure that an estimated 155,000 Haitian migrants who have been in the United States since July 29, 2021, are eligible to receive work authorizations and protection from deportation by granting them a Temporary Protected Status designation. 

He could also use another form of relief known as Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), which similarly prevents the removal of certain migrants for a designated period of time. In 1997, amid political turmoil and the fallout from a U.S. military intervention in Haiti, President Bill Clinton used DED to grant a one-year exemption to roughly twenty thousand Haitians.

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