Biden faces potential new refugee crisis amid turmoil in Haiti, Cuba

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned this week that anyone considering fleeing Cuba or Haiti by boat would not be allowed to seek asylum in the United States, even if they demonstrate a credible fear of persecution in their home country.

“If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” Mayorkas, a Cuban refugee who fled Fidel Castro’s regime with his family in 1960, said during a press conference Tuesday.

“This risk is not worth taking,” he said, noting that 20 people have died during such voyages in recent weeks. “Any migrant intercepted at sea, regardless of their nationality, will not be permitted to enter the United States.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, flanked, right, by Vice President Kamala Harris and, left, by Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, talks to the media in El Paso, Texas, in June.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris (right) and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, in El Paso, Texas, in June. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Mayorkas’s comments, which were echoed by White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday, did not reflect any change in U.S. policy, nor were they, according to Mayorkas, issued in response to a recent surge in migrants encountered off U.S. shores from either country. Both Cuba and Haiti currently face significant political upheaval. 

The warning seems instead to have been a preemptive measure by the Biden administration to head off a potential Caribbean migrant crisis, stemming from the concurrent chaos that has unfolded first in Haiti, after last week’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, and then in Cuba, where unprecedented nationwide protests against the long-standing communist regime erupted this week.

Just six months into his presidency, immigration has already emerged as a serious political challenge for President Biden, who pledged to replace the hard-line policies of his predecessor with a more humane and welcoming approach to immigrants and, in particular, refugees and asylum seekers. Yet the current crises in Haiti and Cuba demonstrate the pitfalls facing any U.S. president attempting to handle immigration policy.

On entering the White House in January, Biden sent Congress a sweeping immigration reform bill and signed a stack of executive orders to roll back several Trump-era restrictions. Although these initial actions would have little, if any, practical impact on migrants attempting to seek asylum in the U.S., word that the new president would be more welcoming to migrants quickly spread, with the help of smugglers, to vulnerable communities in Mexico and Central America. By late March, Mayorkas said U.S. border agents were “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”

While the majority of migrants are still being expelled from the border under a pandemic-related policy carried over from the Trump era, Republicans have seized on the influx, declaring that Biden’s policies have caused a “border crisis.”

Demonstrators mounted a rare protest against Cuba's communist government in Havana last Sunday, chanting

Demonstrators mounted a rare protest against Cuba’s communist government in Havana last Sunday. (Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images)

It was against this politically charged backdrop that Mayorkas issued his stern warning to potential migrants from Cuba and Haiti, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and director of the institute’s office at New York University law school.

Although Chishti described the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as a “perceived political crisis” that “Republicans have been too eager to exploit,” he said that “as long as this crisis does not subside, any new people coming, either at the shores or on the ground at the border, is going to add fuel to their fire.”

Government data shows that Cuban and Haitian migrants, who have historically received drastically different treatment in the U.S., had been arriving in increasingly larger numbers before the most recent events that threw both countries into turmoil.

And while Mayorkas said Tuesday that U.S. officials have not encountered an influx in migrant boats bound for Florida, there is a history of coinciding domestic crises in Haiti and Cuba, resulting in overlapping waves of refugees taking to the sea.

On Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba two years before Castro took power, raised the possibility that Cuba’s current upheaval could spark another exodus, urging Biden in a letter to “warn the regime that any effort to encourage mass migration will be viewed and treated as a hostile action against the United States.”

Haitian troops guard the bridge between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The border was closed after the Haitian president's assassination July 8.

Haitian troops guard the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which was closed after the Haitian president’s assassination July 7. (Ricardo Rojas/Reuters)

For immigration and refugee rights advocates, many of whom celebrated Biden’s selection of Mayorkas for homeland security chief, the warning to Cuban and Haitian migrants seemed to serve as a reminder of the hard-line Trump policies that remain in place, contradicting Biden’s promise to “uphold our laws humanely and preserve the dignity of immigrant families, refugees, and asylum-seekers.”

In a statement Tuesday, Denise Bell, a researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, called Mayorkas’s comments “shameful” and accused the Biden administration of “turning away from [its] promised commitment to human rights and racial justice.”

“At a time of acute crisis in Haiti and Cuba, the U.S. should be fully upholding the right to seek asylum, not curtailing access based on how people arrive, processing them offshore, and then resettling them in a third country,” Bell said.

Under U.S. and international law, foreign nationals who express a fear of persecution in their home country can seek asylum no matter how they entered the U.S. However, U.S. officials have been interdicting Haitian and Cuban migrants who attempt to reach the country by boat for decades. The majority are simply turned away without an opportunity to be screened for humanitarian protections, although in the past a small portion of would-be refugees have been sent to Guantánamo Bay Naval Base for an interview with an asylum officer and, if their claim is deemed legitimate, referred to a third country, like Australia, for resettlement.

Haitians gather outside the U.S. Embassy after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 9.

Haitians gather outside the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince on July 9, after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. (Estaïlove St-val/Reuters)

As a candidate, Biden also pledged to reinstate previous family reunification parole programs for Haitian and Cuban nationals that had been terminated under Trump. During his press conference Tuesday, Mayorkas said that DHS was assessing those programs, but that to date they have not been restarted. He also noted that new arrivals from Haiti would not be eligible for the temporary protected status he’d announced for the country back in May, citing Haiti’s “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

DHS first designated Haiti for temporary protected status, or TPS, in 2010, after the country was devastated by a catastrophic earthquake. This designation, which does not lead to a green card or any other permanent immigration status, was extended several times until January 2018, when the Trump administration announced it would end the special consideration for Haiti, putting roughly 50,000 Haitian TPS holders at risk of deportation, though several lawsuits allowed the protections to remain in effect.

Advocates estimated that the Biden administration’s new TPS designation could benefit an additional 100,000 Haitians who arrived in the U.S. after 2010. But as Mayorkas noted during Tuesday’s press conference, the protections are available only to those who were already in the country when the designation went into effect in May.

Cuban government supporters take to the streets in Havana in early July.

Cuban government supporters take to the streets in Havana in early July. (Stringer/Reuters)

Despite Mayorkas’s attempts to highlight the very serious, sometimes fatal risks involved in crossing the Caribbean by boat, especially during hurricane season, Wendy Young, president of the legal aid nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, argued that the administration’s effort to discourage Cubans and Haitians from seeking safety in the United States is “ineffective,” because it “fails to acknowledge the fear and desperation that drives such migration.”

“No rhetoric from Washington will deter them from seeking safety, because they have no alternative course of action,” she said. “If they remain at home, they face grave harm and, in some instances, death.”

Such pronouncements, she continued, “could place these children and families in greater danger, as they will be forced to take riskier routes to avoid detection.”

Recent government data suggests that is already happening. On Tuesday, Mayorkas told reporters that U.S. officials have encountered 470 Cubans and 313 Haitians at sea so far this fiscal year, compared with the 49 Cubans and 430 Haitians the Coast Guard interdicted during fiscal year 2020. By comparison, in the month of May alone, 2,800 Haitians and 2,600 Cubans were taken into custody along the U.S.-Mexico border, where, despite pressure from advocates, Biden has yet to lift the Trump-era public health order allowing border agents to turn away most migrants, including asylum seekers.


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