Haiti news: The conversation about dialogue, flag day events and take action on TPS

ACTION: The Biden Administration must re-designate TPS for Haiti

“It is critical for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to redesignate Haiti for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).   TPS is appropriate when extraordinary and temporary conditions in a nation make returning its nationals unsafe.  There is overwhelming political and civil society recognition that redesignating Haiti for TPS is appropriate because such conditions exist; even DHS officials in internal discussions and documents acknowledge that Haitians they return “may face harm” upon return in Haiti.  Nevertheless, and in violation of President Biden’s campaign promise to halt Haiti expulsions, DHS has expelled to Haiti since February 1 about 1700-2100 Haitians, mainly families including hundreds of children, on at least thirty three (33) flights, [This is more Haitians than President Trump expelled during all of FY2020].  This policy is inhumane and contradicts the stated values and promises of President Biden and Vice-President Harris.” [from Steve Forester at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti]

It is hard to imagine anyone in this administration lobbying to continue deportations and expulsions to Haiti under the current conditions, but somebody must be. Meanwhile, halting removals to Haiti is a consistent demand across the spectrum – check the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, hundreds of human rights activists and organizations, and members of his own party in Congress. 

Redesignating Haiti for Temporary Protected Status would mean those Haitians in the United States could stay until the crisis at home is resolved. TPS is a policy often utilized for humanitarian purposes. It was just extended to Venezuela, for example. Because Trump tried to kill TPS for Haiti, and many other countries, Haiti’s earlier designation for TPS (2011) is still being fought in the courts. Redesignating Haiti now would make this earlier case moot, and protect more families from removal. It is the right thing to do, and there is bi-partisan cover to the extent Biden is worried about the GOP backlash.

Actions to take:

  1. Sign/share the Color of Change petition calling on the Biden administration to redesignate Haiti for TPS
  2. For organizations, you can sign/share this Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights letter asking for TPS redesignation for Haiti.

Flag Day events on Haiti

May 18 is flag day in Haiti, the anniversary of the adoption of Haiti’s flag in 1803. This year flag day will involve much more than cultural celebrations. Here are a few events to check out:

Current realities regarding the gains of Haiti’s 1987 constitution
Haitian Studies Association:
Tuesday, May 18, 4 :00 EDT (Haitian Flag Day)
Moderator: François Pierre-Louis

Participants :

Chantal Hudicourt-Ewald
Danièle Maggiore
Georges Michel
Lucien Prophète
Jean Eddy Saint Paul
One of the most current issues in Haiti is a referendum scheduled for June 17 for a new constitution called for by the current state. The proposed constitution involves a series of changes.

This panel will discuss the legacy and stakes of the constitution of March 29, 1987, a national consensus after the fall of Duvalier in 1986. The 1987 constitution was written in a very specific context, to implant democracy and human rights. This panel will analyze the gains of the 1987 constitution in today’s context, comparing it with the proposed constitution, asking a range of questions for engaged Haitian citizens to make an informed decision.

Get details, and register here.

U.S. Policy on Haiti and U.S. Position on Haiti’s Elections
with Julie Chung, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere
U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Global Public Affairs Event
Tuesday, May 18, 2021 from 9:00 AM to 10:00 AM EDT
To register click here

Civil society organizations form “Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis”

The political crisis in Haiti, which has deep historical roots, but is most immediately the result of opposition to the government of Jovenal Moise over the last three years, is entering a new phase with Moise insisting on holding a constitutional referendum in June and then moving forward with elections this fall. Both of these measures are opposed by broad sectors of society. While many recognize the need for constitutional reform, as well as the need for elections for a new government, Moise is not recognized as a legitimate authority to oversee these things. There was broad agreement from across the political spectrum that Moise’s tenure ended on February 7, 2021, and that he should step down to make way for a provisional authority to oversee new elections.

As we have noted, the Biden administration has by and large accepted the Trump policy of demanding elections, and has defended Moise’s argument that his tenure should extend another year (to February 7, 2022). Biden’s administration has voiced concerns about the constitutional referendum, as have a number of other external actors (the OAS and European Union, for example), but there is no sign that they will actually try to stop it.

The impasse over elections, referendum and ongoing instability, is in some manner the result of international actors backing Moise’s position, despite the widespread opposition within Haiti. Moise has often claimed a willingness to dialogue, but has not been willing to compromise much.

A possibly hopeful sign is that a coalition of civil society organizations have formalized an agreement reached back in January to form a commission to promote “Haitian solutions” to the crisis.  From the declaration:

In view of the government’s refusal to comply with constitutional imperatives despite massive popular and political mobilizations as well as the political sector’s inability to impose its views with regard to mechanisms of resolution of the crisis, the country is experiencing a political deadlock. From a perspective of change, it is therefore important for us to seek ways and means to rebuild and reestablish our institutions. In the absence of institutions of counter-power, the vital sectors of the country, in a patriotic spirit, are to take action in order to avoid the total collapse of the state and to allow the nation to emerge from this deadlock. As a matter of priority, it is about returning to the normalization of the social and political life as soon as possible via a return to the constitutional order as a guarantee to the functioning of the rule of law and a way to allow citizens to choose their leaders freely and safely in a peaceful atmosphere.

It is in the name of this objective that the Forum of Civil Society Organizations gathered on January 30, 2021 recommended to establish a Commission to work towards a peaceful resolution of the current political and institutional crisis. Based on combined criteria of affiliation to an organized sector of society, notoriety, morality, civic and patriotic commitment, competence and availability, the commission was then established in consultation with various sectors of society. These sectors, in a great display of magnanimity, agreed to contribute to this attempt to find a solution to this crisis, which has already drained the country. As a result, the Commission will devote itself to working together with all the different components of society, including political parties and groupings.

The Commission membership:

– Reverend Father Frantz Joseph CASSEUS / Église Épiscopale d’Haïti (Episcopal Church of Haiti)

– Mrs. Monique CLESCA / Independent

– Mrs. Magali COMEAU DENIS / Kolektif Atis Angaje (Collective of Committed Artists)

– Reverend Pastor, Jean Kisomaire DURÉ / Fédération Protestante d’Haïti (Protestant Federation of Haiti)

– Mr. Evens FILS / Fédération des Barreaux d’Haïti (Federation of Haitian Bars)

– Mrs. Magalie GEORGES / Collectif des Syndicats Haïtiens pour le respect de la Constitution (Collective of Haitian Trade Unions for the Respect of the Constitution)

– Mr. Louis Joël JOSEPH / Plateforme des Organisations Paysannes 4G-Kontre (Platform of Farmers’ Organizations 4G-Kontre)

– Mrs. MANIGAT / Plateforme des Organisations Féministes (Platform of Women’s Organizations)

– Mr. Maxime RONY / Plateforme des Organisations Haïtiennes des Droits de l’Homme (Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations)

– Mr. Ted SAINT-DIC / Independent

– Mr. Wilfrid SAINT-JUSTE / Voodoo Sector

– Mr. Michel A. PEAN

– A representative of the Haitian Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development 

 The full declaration is here.

Organization of American States Holds Special Session on Haiti

The OAS held a special session to discuss a proposed OAS Mission to Haiti to facilitate dialogue between various “stakeholders” and the government over the electoral process. The hearing was held on Wednesday and can be viewed here. The OAS had proposed the mission at an earlier session. This latest meeting followed the government of Haiti’s acceptance of the Mission. The Mission itself has not yet been formally approved. The session Wednesday gave foreign ministers an opportunity to express their support or concerns so that a final agreement outlining the terms of the mission can be drafted. It seems likely that this will come to fruition – there was little opposition to the idea.  

Dialogue is, of course, to be welcome. If this mission proceeds with full participation across a range of civil society and political groupings, it could very well help. Of course, the concern is that the OAS has thus far been pressing for elections and supporting Moise’s position on tenure. Which means this Mission could end up playing the role of defending Moise’s position and giving it international cover for an electoral process that is (under current terms) widely opposed. 

For the hardcore, the full Organization of American States Permanent Council meeting can be viewed here. The discussion on Haiti begins at 1:38 (it follows a discussion on Nicaragua).

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Sure, Biden never called Haiti a “shithole country.” So, why is he treating it like one?

Back in January of 2018, Donald Trump was being briefed by Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about a compromise proposal to cut the visa lottery system, while reallocating the difference to underrepresented countries in Africa and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, such as Haiti. Trump is said to have responded, ““Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?” And, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”

Here was some pretty significant proof of Trump’s racialized worldview – which surprised few, but demanded a response. The social media dance was predictable. Trump was excoriated by many as a racist, while he feigned ignorance, asking “what the fuss was all about,” or, saying “that was taken out of context,” or, his favorite, it was “fake news.”

Against the backdrop of the debate, however, there was an utter lack of attention to what the U.S. was actually doing in Haiti. Democrats predictably called out Trump’s bigotry. Most had, also predictably, ignored Obama’s interventions that had given Haiti a series of presidents widely viewed as illegitimate. The crisis those interventions engendered is ongoing today.

It is not that Trump did better in Haiti. Indeed, aside from this soundbite, his administration paid little attention to Haiti. He offered verbal support for President Moise from time to time when pressed, and provided U.S. funds for police training with little accountability attached. Eventually, Trump’s State Department began talking about elections, and pressing the Haitian government to move in that direction. His Secretary of State went so far as to issue a pretty clear threat to people who stood in opposition to the process in 2020. None of this made Trump any kind of outlier though. Indeed, all of his moves were typical of the U.S. government in Haiti, especially regarding elections. 

Biden is no different. His administration continues to press for elections in Haiti, despite a deepening security crisis that makes those elections a dangerous affair for many in the capital where gang violence and kidnappings have increased over the past several months. Biden continues to stand by President Moise, despite increasing evidence of his government’s complicity with some of the gangs in Port au Prince. Just last week, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic issued a damning report, that demonstrates:

To date, the Haitian government has failed to hold perpetrators accountable, allowing them to act with near complete impunity. Known perpetrators such as Chérizier, who is implicated as a principal actor in repeated attacks, remain free. Moreover, the government has failed to reckon with the criminal responsibility of officials and police officers within its ranks…Despite indications that Moïse himself has sanctioned the attacks, his role remains unscrutinized by any official investigation. This lack of justice has allowed a culture of impunity to grow, emboldening criminals and leaving civilians vulnerable to politically-motivated violence.

But the most immoral, and frankly baffling gesture from the Biden administration, given all of the above, is that it has not only continued to deport people to Haiti – his administration has radically increased those removals. For this he has been criticized by the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, hundreds of human rights activists and organizations, and members of his own party in Congress. But he hasn’t stopped.

There is also a bi-partisan push for Biden to not just halt the removals, but to re-designate Haiti for Temporary Protected Status, so that people already in the United States can stay. Such left-wing radicals as Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) have called for this, and yet Biden has still refused. Indeed, he has not even reinstated the existing TPS program for Haiti that Trump tried to kill back in 2017 – a move that is still tied up in the courts over the Trump administration’s blatant political calculations in terminating the program that overrode recommendations from State and career DHS personnel to extend it. Biden could make the case moot by redesignating Haiti for TPS. But he hasn’t – even with bi-partisan cover in both the House and Senate. 

Meanwhile, Mayorkas claimed Friday during a conference at UCLA that the administration was still studying “country conditions” in order to make a determination. 

Really? Just read the Harvard report, or any of the other human rights reports detailing the crisis that have come out over the last two and half years! People are dying in Haiti, victims of political violence. People deported back to Haiti are in hiding, or have simply fled again in fear of their lives. The number of people kidnapped has exploded in recent months. Three weeks ago a gang invaded the community of Bel Air and burned down dozens of homes and killed an unknown number of people – at least the 11th gang-led massacre in 3 years. What more does the Biden team need to know? I mean if they are still confused, then reason would suggest they stop sending people back until they figure it out!

So, yeah, Biden never called Haiti a shithole country, but he is certainly treating the people of the country with a similar lack of respect. And for that he should be quite ashamed. However he feels about it, though, the solution is to act now and save some lives: Halt the removals and redesignate TPS, then re-evaluate U.S. policy, as 69 members of Congress have just requested.


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Haiti News from Congress to Harvard Law School to the Border

Congress and Haiti this week

This week, 69 members of congress sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking for a review of U.S. policy toward Haiti. From the Miami Herald,

More than 60 U.S. House Democrats are calling for “a significant review of U.S. policy in Haiti” by the Biden administration and warning that “the U.S.’s insistence on elections at all costs in Haiti” later this year risks exacerbating the country’s cycle of political instability and violence.

“While elections will clearly be needed in the near future to restore democratic order, we remain deeply concerned that any electoral process held under the current administration will fail to be free, fair, or credible,” members of Congress said Monday in the letter addressed to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. “Parliamentary, local, and presidential elections set for Fall 2021 could increase the risk of violence throughout the country significantly.”

The U.S. lawmakers said the administration of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, who has been ruling without a parliament for over 15 months, not only “lacks the credibility and legitimacy” to administer elections that are free and fair but also a constitutional referendum scheduled for June 27.

The full text of the letter is available here.

The Biden administration’s ongoing support for elections in Haiti this year continues to be the focal point of critique. The security situation continues to deteriorate and with it, Moise’s limited credibility to oversee much of anything, much less elections. 

It should be noted, however, that the U.S. government does not support the scheduled referendum on the constitution, and even the Organization of American States has been critical of this (after waffling a bit). The question for many in Haiti regarding the referendum is thus whether to participate. A boycott makes it more likely that the reforms will pass, however, many doubt the integrity of the process to begin with – and so do not want to legitimate through their participation. It is still possible, of course, that the referendum will not occur. Even likely. It continues to be highly controversial within Haiti, even among some within Moise’s party.

There will be public panel discussion on the constitutional referendum on May 18 at 4:00 p.m (EST) including scholars and constitutional experts from Haiti. More information here.

Legislation was also introduced this week calling for a series of reports on the use of aid by the Haitian government and U.S. oversight of said aid. The full text of The Haiti Development, Accountability, and Institutional Transparency Initiative Act (H.R. 2471) is not yet available, but is almost identical to H.R. 5586, which was introduced during the last Congress.  It passed the House, though it was never taken up in the Senate.  

New Report from Harvard Law School and Haitian Observatory calls out Haiti’s government for Crimes Against Humanity (from press release announcing report)

Three deadly massacres targeting impoverished neighborhoods in Haiti were carried out with Haitian government support and amount to crimes against humanity, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes contre l’humanité (OHCCH). The report points to evidence that the gang-led attacks were resourced and supported by state actors, ranging from high-ranking officials in the Moïse administration to the Haitian National Police. 

The report, “Killing with Impunity: State-Sanctioned Massacres in Haiti,” analyzes three attacks that took place between 2018-2020, which have together killed at least 240 civilians. The massacres targeted the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of La Saline, Bel-Air, and Cité Soleil, which have played a leading role in organizing protests demanding government accountability for corruption and other human rights violations. 

“Moïse’s government has been pushing the story that the attacks are merely gang infighting, but the evidence demonstrates high-level government involvement in the planning, execution and cover-up of the attacks,” said Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a member organization of OHCCH. 

The report relies on investigations by Haitian and international human rights experts that show that senior Moïse administration officials planned the attacks or otherwise assisted by providing the gangs with money, weapons, or vehicles. Off-duty police officers and resources were utilized to carry out the attacks. The Haitian National Police repeatedly failed to intervene to protect civilians despite the sites of the attacks being in close proximity to multiple police stations. In each attack, gangs arrived in the targeted neighborhood, shot at residents indiscriminately, raped women, and burnt and looted houses. The massacres repeatedly involved gangs affiliated with the G9 alliance led by Jimmy Chérizier, which reportedly enjoys government connections.

“We found that Moïse’s failure to stop or respond to attacks initiated by his subordinates may make the President himself liable for crimes against humanity,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a Clinical Instructor at the Harvard Clinic who supervised the research and drafting of the report. “This should serve as a wake-up call to the international community to stand up for human rights, fully investigate allegations of serious abuses, and do its part to hold perpetrators accountable,” she added. 

Read the full report here. Send it to everyone you know who cares about Haiti.

New Title 42 report includes the testimony of hundreds of people expelled, including Haitians

Human Rights First, Haitian Bridge Alliance and Otro Lado published a powerful report that unpacks the toll that Title 42 expulsions are having on migrants. The report includes hundreds of testimonies from people expelled at the border, including testimony from Haitian migrants assembled by the Haitian Bridge Alliance.

The report is titled “Failure to Protect: Biden Administration Continues Illegal Trump Policy to Block and Expel Asylum Seekers to Danger” and can be read here. Excerpt from findings:

The Biden administration is blocking asylum-seeking families and individuals at ports of entry and expelling those who cross the border seeking protection to danger in Mexico. They include refugees from Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cuba, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Russia, Somalia, Venezuela, and Yemen. Restarting its tracking of reports of attacks on asylum seekers in Mexico, Human Rights First has identified at least 492 public and media reports of violent attacks since January 21, 2021 –including rape, kidnapping, and assault – against people stranded at the U.S.-Mexico border and/or expelled to Mexico. In a survey conducted by Al Otro Lado from mid-February through early April 2021 in Baja California, 81 percent of LGBTQ asylum seekers reported that they were subjected to attack or an attempted attack in Mexico in the past month, including sexual assault by Mexican law enforcement and human trafficking. Those delivered to severe violence in Mexico after requesting protection in the United States include: a woman reportedly kidnapped and raped in Reynosa after being expelled in February 2021; a 10-year-old Nicaraguan boy and his mother kidnapped immediately after U.S. border officers expelled them in March 2021; and a Cuban asylum seeker expelled to Tijuana where she fears the smugglers who previously kidnapped her and killed her friend.

We published our own report on Title 42 with the Haitian Bridge Alliance and UndocuBlack last month. Our report was principally focused on a review of the policy, with an expanded section featuring testimony from Haitians. The new report from Human Rights First (with Haitian Bridge Alliance and Otro Lado) goes much further as an investigation – based on hundreds of interviews done at the border during February and March, plus contributions from co-authors. Read it. Share it.

Biden must Re-designate Haiti for Temporary Protected Status

It is hard to imagine anyone in this administration lobbying to continue deportations and expulsions to Haiti under the current conditions, but somebody must be. Among the points raised in the Congressional letter referenced at the top of this column, is the need to halt removals and grant TPS to Haitians already here. Halting removals to Haiti is a consistent demand across the spectrum – from Congress, to every human rights organization I know working in Haiti, to the editorial boards of dominant media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Harvard study makes clear the severity of the security situation, and government complicity in the violence.

I cannot imagine what Biden gains by continuing these removals. Is he that scared of the Fox News world? Given everything he is pressing for, this is small-scale stuff (compared, for example to $1.8 trillion for universal pre-school and free community college). It would, however, make a huge difference to hundreds of families. Just do it!

If you agree, you can call the White House comment line (202-456-1111) and let them know. You can also forward a copy of the letter from Congress to Blinken (if they have not already signed on) along with a copy of the Harvard study to your member of Congress. Ask them to speak out for TPS, and an end to removals to Haiti. Congress does not have the power to make these policy changes – but they can certainly press the Administration for action.

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La 72 Celebrates 10th Anniversary April 23




Make a special 10th Anniversary donation through Paypal or our fiscal sponsor.
Hacer una donación especial como regalo de aniversario. Use Paypal o nuestro patrocinador fiscal.

Considera un VOLUNTARIADO en La 72.
Consider serving as a VOLUNTEER with La 72.

Background: The 72…

In August of 2010, members of the Los Zetas cartel murdered 72 migrants on a ranch near San Fernando in northeastern Mexico. Last year the Washington Office on Latin America posted a reflection on the 10-year anniversary:

The tragedy in San Fernando—which saw the migrants kidnapped and killed, reportedly for refusing to work for the criminal group—was no anomaly. In 2010, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH)  estimated that approximately 20,000 migrants were kidnapped in Mexico. Ten years later, kidnapping remains one of the most common crimes that migrants report experiencing. Authorities have identified hundreds of migrant remains pulled from mass graves—such as the 48 graves with 196 people, discovered in 2011in San Fernando, and another with 49 torsos, found in 2012 in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon—raising the question of how many of the tens of thousands of unidentified remains in Mexico may belong to missing migrants. A 2019 study found that about one in three migrants experience some form of violence when transiting through Mexico. 

In response to the violence that so many migrants face, and in honor of those killed in San Fernando specifically, the Franciscan order launched La 72, a shelter for migrants in Tenosique, Tabasco near the Mexico/Guatemala border in the months after the massacre. In the years since the shelter opened they have served tens of thousands of migrants from Central America and elsewhere, offering a meal, a room, and at times, assistance navigating Mexico’s migration system. 

Franciscan Network

In 2019 La 72 joined with other shelters in Mexico and Central America to create the Franciscan Network on Migration. The network provides opportunities for the coordination of the shelters’ work during the ongoing crisis generated by U.S. border policy, Mexico’s increased enforcement, and ongoing forced displacement from Central America. 

The need for the work is ongoing. In January of this year, in an attack reminiscent of the massacre at San Fernando, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in two vans. They had been shot, and then the bodies burned. Ultimately, the police were implicated in the attack along with cartels. Just this week came reports of a group of 120 migrants who have gone missing, last seen in Puebla. From a report on the situation: “The 120 migrants were being transported by coyotes, suffering mistreatment and abuse, but then were found by National Guard and local Tlaxclala authorities after one in the group was able to call for assistance through WhatsApp.” The concern is that they are possibly back with coyotes, as the group has not been heard from. 

The dangers migrants face is increasing as the Biden administration continues to pressure Mexico, and now Guatemala and Honduras, to clamp down on their borders and block passage of people trying to head north. The border closures and militarization of enforcement only serves to drive people into more dangerous situations. For many, the only chance they have for respite on this journey is through one of the many privately run shelters in the country.  

The Quixote Center is the fiscal sponsor for the Franciscan Network on Migration. You can donate to support their work here


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Earth Day Reflection on Ecological Debt and Human Mobility

Designed by Robert A. Jackson III

As we commemorate Earth Day this week, it is fitting to consider the Pope’s reflection on his namesake: “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically […] He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (LS 10). That lesson is one that animates the work of the Franciscan Network on Migration. 

Fundamentally, people who migrate have in a very literal sense become alienated from their original homeland. A major cause of such alienation is that the land becomes unreliable as a place to support human existence. While we have increasingly begun to hear about “climate change refugees,” it might be more meaningful to consider the even broader category of “environmental refugees,” people who flee their land because the material conditions necessary for human thriving are in short supply. Who are we talking about? To take just a couple of examples, the people whose soil is contaminated by environmental waste or lack access to water because a hydroelectric dam diverts the flow of water that once nourished their land may experience environmental displacement. Environmental conditions like these may very well give rise to further climate change at both the local and global levels but environmental degradation is a broader category than climate change and a significant driver of human migration. 

Such conditions are highlighted in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Sì (On Care For Our Common Home) promulgated in 2015. “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever” (LS 25). He discusses the roots of this sort of environmental destruction in a pattern of consumption that pays little heed to the needs of the systems of life on this planet, of which people are one part. 

But if people are a principal cause, they are not all implicated individually or equally. Instead, Francis writes: “Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.” (LS 51) This debt of the wealthy countries with massive rates of consumption demands payment – but the costs cannot only be financial. When people are forced from their lands by actions taken abroad, it seems clear that any reasonable attempt to repair the harm must include a new place where life can thrive. For this reason, it is time to call for a new understanding of refugee and asylum claims grounded in an understanding that the wealthier countries have been able to insulate themselves from harm but have disproportionately acted in ways that were harmful to their more vulnerable global neighbors. 

As we acknowledge and commemorate Earth Day this week, we should be mindful of the new refugees who must seek higher ground – sometimes literally as sea levels rise, but also metaphorically as desert soil often cannot provide enough food and water to support human needs – much as biblical famine and flood drove Abraham and Noah to find new places to live. The way in which we enforce national borders, however, has made such forced relocation into a cruel shell game where each space that might be a better home may be made unavailable to people in a moment of dire need. This pattern simply cannot persist. Justice and basic human decency demand better treatment. Moreover, Catholic social tradition is clear on the universal destination of goods – a position that has “stressed the social purpose of all forms of property” (LS 93), including the land itself.  

The call to an “ecological conversion” thus entails a call to change our relationship to the environment around us from one of dominance and coercion to one of peaceful coexistence, healing, and restoration. Alongside that commitment, we must also make space to welcome those who seek life in new communities when their old ones have suffered environmental harm. The Franciscan Network on Migration has made that mission of welcoming and inclusion tangible by opening doors to shelters, kitchens, clinics, and legal aid for thousands of migrants in search of new spaces alongside us in “our common home.” 

If you are interested in supporting the work of the Franciscan Network on Migration, you can make a contribution here.

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Paul Oquist Presente

On December 12, 2015 the Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 parties at the 21st Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The agreement went into force on November 4, 2016. Among the handful of countries that opposed the agreement was Nicaragua – because it was too weak. The core of the treaty is built around “nationally determined contributions,” or voluntary emission reductions decided by individual countries. The failure to adopt binding requirements led Nicaragua to refuse to sign the accord – the person who made the case for rejecting it was Paul Oquist.

Oquist’s argument rested on two ideas. The first was that the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) that were being put forth in December 2015 were not sufficient to keep average global temperatures in the range of 1.5 to 2 degrees celsius that was being debated. As Estafanias Jiminez summarizes the argument,

Nicaragua calculated that the INDCs submitted for December, 2015 will generate 55 gigatons of CO2 by 2030, which implies a global temperature increase of 3 °C. Oquist highlighted that the current form of the [Paris Accord] will lead the world to a 3 °C increase in temperature and this would mean, in most developing countries, a dangerous increase of 4 °C. His government does not believe the INDCs will be better in 5 years. He explained that the low ambition of 1.5 °C wanted by developing countries and 2 °C wanted by developed countries is leading to less execution of the commitments. Nicaragua wants another mechanism based on historical responsibilities. 

The second problem for Oquist was that the countries most responsible for emitting greenhouse gases were getting off too easy. In an interview, Oquist explained:

The 10 largest emitters are responsible for 72 percent of the emissions. The 100 smallest are responsible for 3 percent of the emissions. If you’re the CEO of a company and you have an overrun that you reckon is in the range of 2.7 to 3.5, let’s say billions of something, and you want to bring it down to the 1.5 to 2 range that’s acceptable: are you going to work on the hundred cases that have 3 percent or on the 10 cases that have 72 percent? It’s a no-brainer. The only way you can get that reduction is out of the big emitters.

The Paris Agreement was thus a “path to failure” according to Oquist, and so Nicaragua did not sign (initially). Ortega later changed course, and Nicaragua agreed to be a part of the process in 2017 “out of solidarity” with other developing countries. At the table, Nicaragua continues to press for stricter emissions standards, and equity in the assignment of responsibility and funding for adaptation. Following 2017, Oquist remained an important influence over the process as a co-chair of the board of the multilateral Green Climate Fund. The fund oversees distributions to impoverished countries seeking to make adaptations to meet emission reductions.

Nicaragua is way ahead of most other countries. Over the last 13 years the government has adopted a series of reforms, and made a determined effort to direct investment to renewable forms of energy. Nicargua is now approaching the goal of having 90% of its energy come from renewable sources. So, Oquist’s hesitations had nothing to do with commitment on the part of the country he was representing. He was addressing the system of global inequality.

Paul Oquist died on April 12, 2021. He will be sorely missed for his wisdom and tenacity, as well his generosity and kindness.

Some remembrances of Paul Oquist:

Letter to Paul Oquist from Saul Arana, reprinted Alliance for Global Justice

“Tribute to Dr Paul Oquist, tireless advocate for social, economic & climate justice” Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign

Isabelle Gerretsen, “Climate watchers pay tribute to Nicaraguan envoy Paul Oquist, who died on Monday,” Climate Home News

“Paul Oquist ha partido”, Nicaragua Sandino

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Haiti Update: Insecurity reigns, while talk of elections continues

On Sunday, April 11, 5 priests, two nuns and family members of a priest from Galette Chambon were kidnapped. As of this writing, they have not been released.  The group was ambushed and taken on route to the installation of Father Jean Anel Joseph as parish warden of Galette Chambon. Those taken:

  • Father Evens Joseph, Société des prêtres de Saint-Jacques (PSJ)
  • Father Michel Briand (French citizen), PSJ
  • Father Jean Nicaisse Milien, PSJ
  • Father Joël Thomas, PSJ
  • Father Hugues Baptiste, priest of the Archdiocese of Cap-Haïtien
  • Sister Anne Marie Dorcélus, PSST – aunt of Father Arnel Joseph, PSJ
  • Sister Agnès Bordeau (French citizen), sister of Providence of la Pommeraye
  • Madame Oxane Dorcélus, mother of Father Arnel Joseph, PSJ
  • Miss Lovely Joseph, sister of Father Arnel Joseph, PSJ
  • Mr. Welder Joly, godfather of Father Arnel Joseph, PSJ

In response to the dramatic rise in kidnappings of which this attack is a part, the Episcopal Conference of Haiti issued a strong statement condemning the kidnapping and calling for Catholic institutions across the country to stop work on April 15. The statement reads in part, 

We denounce and condemn with all our might the dictatorship of kidnapping in our country. We must not let bandits continue to kill, rape, kidnap others…We must unite in prayer, in striving to have another country similar to the one God wants us to be. The risen Jesus is the strength for all living Christians in the struggle for life. Thus, like the apostle Paul, we can say: “We are troubled but not despairing, we are under persecution, but we are not alone. They have struck us, but they have not killed us ”(2 Corinthians 4: 8-9).

It is in this sense that we, the Conference of Bishops and the CHR (Haitian Religious Conference), to protest against these evil deeds in the country, we ask all Catholic schools, presbyterals, congregants, universities and all other institutions. we are due to stop work next Thursday, April 15th. We ask the pairs and all the consecrated, all the pastoral agents to accompany and keep the people of God in hope as Pope Francis has just told us: “Do not let difficulties overwhelm you.” But we look forward with confidence and hope ”. We ask that on Thursday, April 15, throughout the country all bells be rung at noon and that we celebrate Mass in all our churches to ask God for change for Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, Mass will be celebrated in the church of St. Peter Petion-Ville and all the Bishops of Haiti on the same day at noon.

Full statement here (in Haitian Creole).

On April 15, 50+ businesses in Haiti announced that they would join with the church on the day of protest and Quisqueya University closed in solidarity.

A New Prime Minister

As the situation of insecurity continues to worsen, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe resigned April 13th, and Moise nominated Charles Joseph, the current foreign minister, as his replacement. 

In accepting Jouthe’s resignation, Moise referenced the security situation and the need to continue to press for some kind of compromise solution to the ongoing political stalemate.

Charles Joseph is set to become the 5th prime minister to serve under Jovenel Moise since massive protests against the government led to the resignation of Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant in July 2018. The others were Jean-Henry Céant, who resigned in March of 2019 following another round of demonstrations. To be followed by Jean-Michel Lapin and then Fritz William Michel – who was never confirmed by parliament. Joseph Jouthe was made prime minister by Moise in March of 2020 and thus served one year during which Moise ruled by decree. 

Haiti’s government holds a “town hall  meeting” in the United States to sell referendum

Determined to press ahead with a referendum on the constitution, the government held a special town hall meeting for Haitians living in the United States. Under provisions of earlier constitutional reform, Haitians living in the United States will be able to vote in the referendum. It is important to remember that earlier constitutional reforms are themselves controversial, and secondly, a referendum of this kind is not allowed under the 1987 constitution. 

That said, the government seems intent on moving forward, though neither the United States nor the UN office in Haiti support the referendum. It is not clear that either the US or UN will seek to block the process, but both argue that legislative elections need to happen first, and that constitutional questions should be settled in consultation with that new legislature.

From the Miami Herald: “At this stage, the process is not sufficiently inclusive, participatory or transparent,” the U.N. Integrated Office in Haiti, which is headed by La Lime, said in a tweet. “National ownership of the draft constitution requires the engagement of a wider range of political, societal, including women’s and religious groups across the country.”

The proposed constitutional reforms have only been available in French – not Haitian Creole. The referendum is scheduled for June, but it is very unlikely to happen – at least not with much in the way of participation. Many organizations see the reforms as illegitimate and thus plan to boycott the process. Further, as many people have pointed out, the security situation in the country makes holding the vote impractical, indeed, dangerous.

The United States still doesn’t get it

In addition to the kidnapping of the group attending Father Jean Anel Joseph’s installation, gangs attacked an orphanage, killing a guard and sexually assaulting two children over the weekend. The previous week witnessed another attack in Croix de Bouquet that led to several deaths and mutilations. Days earlier gangs from Delmas under the leadership of Jimmy Cherizier attacked the community of Bel Air – claiming to be a response to a previous attack from Bel Air, but which others argue was an effort to quell opposition to the government.

Twitter is daily filled with reports of gang violence, kidnappings and assaults on women and girls. For much of the country, Jovenel Moise should no longer be president. His tenure, according to organized sectors of civil society, constitutional scholars, and Supreme Court Justices, should have ended on February 7, 2021. He remains. Those organized in opposition do not support Moise overseeing elections. There is no consensus on a specific solution to the stalemate, but there is broad agreement among opposition forces on the need for a transitional government to oversee elections. And one of the main reasons is that many view Moise as responsible for the reigning insecurity, i.e., gangs have been mobilized to secure political positions – not simply as criminal operations.

Into this fray, which has been fraying for almost three years now, the United States has entered with a consistent mantra: elections must happen. The problem is that aside from Moise and his political allies, hardly any one else in Haiti is saying that. Rather, much as with the referendum, people are saying that the security situation is not conducive to holding elections. Further, if Moise is responsible (either through incompetence, or complicitity) for the main source of instability, i.e., the gangs, then any election overseen by him is likely to be poorly attended and widely seen as illegitimate – not to mention dangerous. In other words, elections in and of themselves, will solve nothing. 

So it comes as no surprise that amidst the deepening crisis, the State Department’s comment on the change in Prime Ministers:

Tone deaf.

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Biden must halt expulsions to Haiti

Yesterday morning I had two messages on Haiti in my inbox. One noting that the 27th removal flight to Haiti since February 1, 2021 was scheduled to land in Port-au-Prince later that afternoon. The other message was about a gang attack in the Marin 26 neighborhood in Croix-des-Bouquets not far from the airport in Port au Prince. On Wednesday this week (April 7), three young men were shot and at least one of them beheaded. Initial reports indicated that members of the gang “Chen Mechan” were responsible for the attack – one of the victims being the leader of a rival gang. 

The two story threads have been consistent since Biden took office. Two or three times a week (back in February, three times in one day!) expulsion flights are leaving the United States for Port-au-Prince. Meanwhile, there are daily reports of gang attacks, kidnappings, or assassinations in Haiti. I keep wondering how Biden’s folk are unable to connect these dots, and stop the expulsions. 

The sad truth is, Biden’s people know all this – and they keep returning Haitians anyway; Women, children, men, families, are being expelled without having a chance to request asylum. This needs to stop. 

“May face harm…”

Toward the end of February, there was an interagency meeting held to discuss the dangers that people removed to Haiti may face. A document summarizing the meeting was leaked to Hameed Aleaziz of Buzzfeed News. His report of the document’s contents on March 2, 2021, says: 

“[B]ased on a recent analysis of conditions in Haiti, USCIS believes that Haitians removed to Haiti may face harm upon return to Haiti as follows.” The document goes on to explain the conditions in the country and relies exclusively on publicly available information, including a State Department travel advisory from August that recommended not traveling to Haiti due to “crime, civil unrest, kidnapping, and COVID-19.”

By the end of February, the Biden administration had ramped up expulsions to Haiti, deporting more people during the first three weeks of February (963) than Trump had deported in all of Fiscal Year (895). Since this interagency meeting was reported (it is not clear when the meeting itself was held), and despite the clear observation that people “may face harm,” another 700+ people have been expelled to Haiti. 

There is widespread opposition to these expulsions to Haiti within the U.S. Congress, and among human rights organizations, public health experts and others. Nevertheless, Biden’s Department of Homeland Security has been unrelenting. 

Two weeks ago we released a report with the Haitian Bridge Alliance and UndocuBlack, The Invisible Wall: Title 42 and its Impact on Haitian Migrants. The report concerns the Trump era Center for Disease Control public health order claiming authority under Title 42 of the U.S. Code to expel people absent an asylum review or access to other humanitarian relief.  Though public health experts have lined up repeatedly to denounce this order as having no public health justification, Biden currently insists on keeping it in place.

For most people, Title 42 policies mean summary expulsion back into Mexico. Well over 90% of the people expelled are removed within 2 hours of first encounter by Border Patrol. One result is that many simply try to come back again. Nearly 40% of those removed this way, try again (this is one reason why the number of apprehensions have been increasing in recent months, even before Biden took office). However, for the vast majority of Haitians, Title 42 does not mean quick expulsion back across a bridge into Mexico. For Haitians, Title 42 means being placed in detention for weeks, and then put on a plane and sent back to Haiti.  

As we document in this report, most of the people arriving at the United States/Mexico border today left Haiti years ago. They are arriving from Brazil, Chile and other countries in Latin America where tens of thousands fled after the Port-au-Prince earthquake in 2010. So, after years of migration, fleeing violence and racism in other countries, on a journey across thousands of miles and seven to ten countries, people arrive at the U.S. border to make a claim for asylum. This they are denied. They are summarily expelled to Haiti without being heard

Another distinction for Haitian removals is that a large portion of them are families. Title 42 policies have no exemption for families and as a result, families have been expelled along with everyone else. Though there is some evidence that Biden is expelling fewer families overall in recent weeks, Haitian families are still being removed at alarming rates. Again, they are not allowed to request asylum or another kind of humanitarian relief. They are denied access to attorneys. They are held in very poor conditions. Most are not able to communicate with the people detaining them. From The Invisible Wall:

“Roseline” is a 37-year-old wife and mother who fled Haiti after being kidnapped, beaten, and raped by a group because of her political affiliations.“They had kidnapped me so I could give information about the political group I was a coordinator of. They beat me up, they raped me… I said I didn’t know any- thing. They let me go and asked me to search for information to bring to them.” After the attack, Rose- line tried to go to the Haitian police, but they refused to provide any form of protection.“I went to the police with what had happened, the police just laughed. They act just like bandits and said I didn’t get killed but I’m still complaining.”

Roseline and her husband fled Haiti in July of 2016. She gave birth to their first son while they were traveling through Mexico. After a long and grueling journey, Roseline entered the United States on Feb- ruary 1, 2021, and was expelled on February 11, 2021 under the Title 42 policy.

In the United States Roseline did not have a chance to speak to an immigration officer about her fear of returning to Haiti. She was never given a Haitian Creole interpreter nor were any of the documents she was given translated into Creole. Roseline did not get an opportunity to speak to a lawyer nor present her case to a judge. She was detained for 11 days without access to a shower or to brush her teeth:

I was in prison, they kept me there and did not give me access to a shower or to brush my teeth or wash myself. I couldn’t do anything and they put me on a plane back to Haiti…. Anywhere in the world it’s known that a woman cannot go two days without bathing. I spent 11 days there without any access to clean myself with a 4-month-old baby. When I got wipes for the baby, I had to use the wipes to wash my private parts. The baby had pooped on the clothes. I asked if I could change the baby’s clothes and I had to put the dirty clothes in a plastic bag, and they said they had no clothes for me. I wanted to get access to our stuff to get clean clothes but they didn’t allow me so I had to put the clothes with the poop on the baby again, and those are the clothes the baby wore on the plane…. I had in- fection when I returned to Haiti because I spent the whole time without bathing.

Roselyn’s case is not unique. While difficult to confirm with DHS, we estimate that Haitian families make up at least half of these expulsions. Advocates working to halt removals have encountered full expulsion flights of all family units, including dozens of young children. The optics of expelling children, some just months old to Haiti are not great for the administration. However, the optics of treating them decently seems to scare Biden more. So, while there is often buzz about this or that deal on Title 42, the only public gesture Biden’s administration has made regarding Haiti immigration is the U.S. Embassy posting warnings to Twitter, telling people not to come to the United States.

Meanwhile, the conditions in Haiti that people are being returned to are deteriorating rapidly.

The psychosis of fear

The administration’s observation that people returned to Haiti “may face harm” seems laughably obtuse – except that there is nothing funny about the collapse of governance and rising insecurity in Haiti.

“Practically every Haitian is living in a psychosis of fear,” [Michelle] Obas told the Miami Herald. “Every time you see a vehicle, you jump. Even your child. You are taking them to school and they are afraid. … The country’s traumatizing and we are in a situation that is chaotic with no idea when we will get out of it.” 

The topic on everyone’s mind at the moment is the rise in gang violence. The reality is that gangs are a manifestation of a deep structural crisis involving long-term unemployment, crowded, underserviced cities, and the parallel collapse of state capacity, as public agencies have been gutted by decades of neo-liberal reform. All of this has occurred alongside an utter refusal to stem the flow of weaponry to the country (despite a “weapons embargo” thousands of small arms have entered Haiti since 2004/5, most from the United States and the Dominican Republic).  

The result is that gang violence has been steadily on the rise over the past few years, and shows no sign of abating. While the refrain that the government is “behind the gangs” is probably not true across the board, there have been multiple reports that some armed groups, such as the federation G-9 under the control of Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, are backed by – or at least tolerated by – the government in exchange for keeping a lid on opposition activity. 

Just this week the situation in Port-au-Prince exploded again, as Cherizier’s gang attacked the community of Bel Air, burning out families in a rampage that left an untold number of people dead. From the Miami Herald,

They arrived unannounced, brandishing heavy artillery as they scaled the rooftops of houses, firing shots and setting homes ablaze.

While some residents managed to escape amid the billows of black smoke and tear gas, others became trapped and died inside their burning houses. The Thursday assault on residents inside the poor, pro-opposition neighborhood of Bel Air in Haiti’s capital was the third large attack in less than two years.

It occurred within walking distance of Haiti’s presidential palace and was perpetrated by gang members affiliated with Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier, a fired policeman-turned-powerful gang chief who is wanted in several massacres, including the slaughter of dozens of men, women and children in a 2018 attack in Port-au-Prince’s La Saline slum.

Cherizier does not deny attacking Bel Air, but claims he was defending his neighborhood (Delmas) against attacks from rival gangs in Bel Air. Cherizier argues that Haiti’s opposition is “supplying guns and cash to Bel Air so residents could attack his alliance.”

Human rights leaders said it had nothing to do with gang rivalry, but “was to break the resistance of Bel Air, which is considered an opposition stronghold, and to prevent residents from taking to the streets in anti-government protests, which have increased in recent weeks. . . . The attack is also the result of the impunity that Chérizier and his fellow gang members have come to enjoy under the administration of President Jovenel Moïse, Gilles added.” 

It is worth noting that days before the attack, people mobilized in large demonstrations against the government.

While the motivations and alliances underlying the gang phenomenon are multi-faceted, and vary in different parts of the country, one thing that should be abundantly clear to the U.S. Embassy and thus the Biden administration is that gang violence in Haiti right now, whatever criminal activity accompanies it, is political violence. Period. People who are fleeing this situation are as much refugees as people fleeing a war zone. 

For the time being, however, Biden’s team keeps sending people back into the heart of the conflict. And, to be clear, not just sending them back, but doing so without even allowing them a chance to make a claim for humanitarian relief. It is infuriating to watch, and it must stop. What political calamity does Biden fear so much that he is willing to send families back to Haiti without even pausing to ask them why they fled? 

What can be done?

Among the recommendations we make in our report, the big ticket items are 1. Rescind Title 42 policies, 2. Re-designate temporary protected status (TPS) for Haiti, and 3. Halt all expulsions and deportations to Haiti.

Title 42 is just lousy policy. When implemented it was widely viewed as a political stunt by Steven Miller, Trump’s anti-immigration advisor, to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an end around federal courts, which had blocked several Trump efforts to shut down asylum. Title 42 also bypasses Congress altogether.  Public health experts have repeatedly bashed the CDC order as unnecessary, and have offered multiple sets of recommendations that could replace it and actually provide enhanced public health measures at the border without closing off asylum claims.

Biden has agreed to review the policy – and the CDC order will have to be revoked eventually, one would think. For now, every day thousands of people are being expelled with no due process by the president who promised to rebuild asylum. He needs more time, he says, and blames the whole situation on Trump. We don’t think this is good enough.

The message to Biden: Revoke Title 42, and replace it with real public health protections and expanded asylum processing.

Second, re-designate TPS for Haiti. Temporary Protected Status is a designation that the president can make that protects most people currently in the United States from a specific country from removal. People who are unauthorized, or unable to return home, can get permission to work for some period of time, rather than be deported. Haiti was granted TPS following the earthquake in 2010, and it was redesignated in 2011 (meaning anyone from Haiti living in the United States as of July 23, 2011 was protected from removal). 

Trump tried to kill TPS for Haiti by refusing to renew it in 2018. This set off a court battle that is still underway.

The demand being made now is that Biden re-designate TPS for Haiti. This would end the uncertainty Haitians previously designated have been living with since Trump starting dismantling TPS, and it would also protect others currently in the United State who are more recent arrivals.

Politically speaking, there is no reason not to do this! Members of the Senate, including Republican Marco Rubio, have called for redesignating TPS for Haiti.This week, House leadership on the foreign relations committee joined in the call for a redesignation of TPS for Haiti. This seems to be the most likely remedy. 

Unfortunately redesignation does nothing about the Title 42 expulsions. Anyone from Haiti arriving after the re-designation date, will still be expelled. At the same time, halting Title 42 expulsions, while reducing the number of people being removed, does not mean people get to stay unless Haitian asylum claims are taken more seriously.

So, we support all of the above. But the simplest demand is to stop the expulsion of Haitians! No more removals until the political situation stabilizes. 

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Border Update: March numbers and what they show

In March the Border Patrol “encountered” 172,000 people – the highest monthly total in years. This surpasses the June 2019 peak of close to 150,000 under the Trump administration, the highest level in over ten years at the time. As we reported last Friday, however, there are some significant differences between now and 2019.

Of the 172,000 people encountered in March, 101,000 were expelled almost immediately under Title 42 policies – a set of regulations imposed by the Trump administration requiring the summary expulsion of most people encountered by Border Patrol. With the March 2021 figures included,  637,000 people have been summarily expelled in the year since Title 42 was enacted (March 20, 2020). 

It is also important to remember when looking at these numbers, many people are still removed quickly under traditional authorities (e.g. Title 8, not Title 42) if it is determined they do not have a valid claim under current law to stay. So, under traditional Title 8 enforcement authority, those wishing to do have a chance to make an asylum claim or present another basis for humanitarian relief, but most will still eventually be removed from the country.

As originally written, Title 42 included expulsion of children, either as part of a family group, or by themselves. A court temporarily blocked the expulsion of unaccompanied children in October of 2020, though the government won an appeal allowing the expulsion of children to resume in January 2021 just before Biden took office. Biden’s administration has determined not to expel unaccompanied children. 

Further, although Biden has continued to otherwise enforce Title 42 – including summary expulsion of families – fewer families are being expelled. In March, 52,000 people who were part of a family group were apprehended by Border Patrol crossing. Along with children (18,000), this accounts for most of the 70,000 people encountered, but NOT expelled, under Title 42.

As the number of encounters has increased in recent months, the number of children in custody has also increased rapidly. According to figures from Homeland Security, the number of children in custody of Health and Human Services is now well over 14,000 while another 4,700 remain in the custody of Customs and Border Protection.  These figures now exceed the number of kids being detained on average for any month in 2019. The total number of children taken into HHS custody in Fiscal Year 2019 reached 76,000. Halfway through the current fiscal year, we are not close to that number…yet. 

At the same time, overall detention numbers are well below 2019 figures. The number of people in ICE detention has dropped below 14,000 as of mid-March, for example. It was 55,000 in August of 2019. This mostly reflects the ongoing summary expulsion of single adults. Children are not transferred to ICE (rather, they are transferred to HHS), and families, if detained by ICE at all, are only held in one of three facilities (Berks in Pennsylvania, or Karnes and Dilley in Texas) and generally cannot be held longer than 20 days. 

The current stress in the system is the need to process the unaccompanied kids so they can be transferred to HHS, and out of Border Patrol custody. Most have been, of course, but there are still too many in Border Patrol facilities awaiting transfer. As has happened in the past, the government is turning to less than optimal solutions, including opening large tent facilities, often on military bases. Nominally under HHS control, these “influx facilities” have been deeply problematic in the past. They bypass state regulatory controls and oversight, and once the kids are in HHS custody, they can languish there far too long (close to three months on average during 2019). 


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At the border: 2019 was worse. What can we learn from this?

CNN reported on Thursday, April 1, “There were about 17,650 unaccompanied migrant children in US government custody….including 5,767 in CBP custody.” So, 5,767 in Border Patrol custody, leaving “about” 11,883 in the custody of Health and Human Services (or in the process of being transferred into HHS custody).

In July of 2019, there were well over 14,000 children in HHS custody. Indeed, between October of 2018 and September of 2019, the average daily population of kids in HHS custody never dropped below 11,000!! 

Meanwhile, Border Patrol facilities were packed: A daily average of people in custody hovered at 16,000 in June of 2019 – including children, families and single adults. The people evaluating detention practices at Border Patrol stations were shocked at conditions, and the publication of their findings led to a widespread outcry.  In an interview with The Atlantic, Warren Binford, an attorney inspecting facilities, said:

Children described to us that they’ve been there for three weeks or longer. And so, immediately from that population that we were trying to triage, they were filthy dirty, there was mucus on their shirts, the shirts were dirty. We saw breast milk on the shirts. There was food on the shirts, and the pants as well. They told us that they were hungry. They told us that some of them had not showered or had not showered until the day or two days before we arrived. Many of them described that they only brushed their teeth once. This facility knew last week that we were coming. The government knew three weeks ago that we were coming.

At the border today, there are again a large number of unaccompanied minors, in numbers that apparently exceed current capacity at HHS shelters to receive them (though it is not clear why). The scenes of kids in crowded pods are a striking reminder of the sorry state of U.S. border policy. However bad that it is, it does not approach the catastrophe that faced migrants, including children, on our border in the late spring and summer of 2019. 

One reason is that there are fewer people in custody today. While the number of kids in custody is high today, this is not true of the overall population – which is actually very low by historical standards. In fact, the vast majority of migrants apprehended attempting to cross the border are single adults and they are being expelled immediately under “Title 42.” Title 42 is an abusive policy which claims authority under public health provisions of the federal code to expel people. 536,000 people since last March. We oppose this program. Last week we released a report with the Haitian Bridge Alliance and UndocuBlack Network documenting multiple problems with Title 42, with a particular focus on harms to Haitian migrants. The fact that people are being summarily expelled in this manner is a shocking abdication of responsibility. 

What this also means, however, is that there are far fewer people in custody right now than any point in recent history. For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention soared during the summer of 2019, reaching an all time peak of 55,000 people in custody a day by August. Currently the number of people in ICE custody is less than 14,000 (data sheet linked here – updated weekly) – the lowest level in over 20 years.

As noted, Border Patrol facilities were well over-capacity in 2019 – above and beyond the number of kids in custody. In addition, record numbers of people were being redirected for Federal Prosecution for “illegal entry” or “illegal re-entry” at the time as part of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy. As a result, at least 23,000 people were either in Federal Bureau of Prison or Marshall Service custody on any given day serving time or in pre-trial detention. Indeed, as we reported at the time, there were approximately 100,000 people in some form of immigration detention in July of 2019. We are nowhere close to that now.  In addition, there were tens of thousands of other people (approximately 50,000 in summer 2019) waiting in Mexico to make an asylum claim under the Migrant Protection Protocol. 

Comparing 2019 to today raises a couple of important points. 

First, the U.S. immigration system remains broken. It is a disgrace that people are treated this way. But the situation now is by no measure worse than we saw in 2019. Talks of a 20-year high in apprehensions ignore that 80% of the people apprehended are pushed back out of the country within two hours of being encountered by Border Patrol under Title 42. Ignoring this fact also seriously mischaracterizes what is happening right now compared to other periods in history, when detention was much higher and conditions far worse. Also, while we may hit a 20 year high in total apprehensions before the year is over, we are still below 2019 at this point (April 2, 2021).

Secondly, we want to shout at Biden and his team with every decibel we can muster: Deterrence DOES NOT WORK!!! It is increasingly infuriating to hear the media talk about this increase in numbers as a result of the perception that Biden is going easy on people. There is anecdotal evidence of this, of course. Reporters can always find people who will say they expect Biden to be nicer. The administration needs to ignore this narrative, which implies generosity is an invitation to crisis, and, therefore, deterrence works.

A far worse human rights debacle was visited upon migrants, amidst a larger increase in border crossings while Trump was president. Trump’s DHS brutalized people, proudly and on camera, under the delusion that doing so would keep others from trying to come. It did not work! The twenty year peak in apprehensions actually happened while Trump was president – the year after his administration decided that taking people’s children would be an effective deterrent. If Trump’s immigration program failed to “deter,” Biden needs to rethink the idea that staying tough-ish is the answer. 

People are fleeing desperate circumstances and their decisions to leave home generally have nothing to do with U.S. border policy! For example, people from Haiti arriving at the border today generally left Haiti years ago, and are actually arriving from Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere. Yet, the U.S. embassy in Haiti this week is posting pictures of Biden telling Haitians “not to leave.” It is a patronizing and frankly ignorant response to the criticism Biden has received for expanding removals to Haiti.

Finally, Border and Customs Services proudly proclaims it processes 650,000 people a day. Given that, I have to ask how on earth 400 unaccompanied kids crossing a day is crippling the system? So, rather than doubling down on Title 42 expulsions, and co-opting Mexico to yet again play enforcement partner, as Biden is currently doing, resources should be redirected to facilities that improve processing  at the border so these kids are spending minimal time in custody (more asylum screeners and less Border Patrol for example). Also we need to be sure that adults and families can also be interviewed quickly, screened for COVID-19 and released safely upon the revocation of Title 42 – which must happen now.  People will keep coming – we need to be clear on that and adapt our approach to be far more humane. The media sensationalizing the border situation, however, is not helping.

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