When Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in early October, the U.S. government temporarily stopped deportation flights back to the country, giving time for the small nation to recover from the damage. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that it had quietly resumed deportations to Haiti, having removed more than 200 immigrants since early November.
“In the last several weeks, ICE has removed over 200 Haitian nationals and plans to significantly expand removal operations in the coming weeks,” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a press release.
In recent months, hundreds of Haitian and other Caribbean immigrants without visas have made their way through Brazil to the southern U.S.-Mexico border, where they wait to enter through ports of entry like Tijuana, California. In response to the crush of people waiting to enter, the DHS issued a press release in September saying that it would begin the expedited removal of certain immigrants affected by the 2010 deadly earthquake that hit Port-au-Prince. But that policy was temporarily halted after Hurricane Matthew struck and killed more than 800 people.
Johnson noted that federal immigration officials have been instructed to “take steps to keep pace” with the influx of immigrants at the southern border. “As a result, there are currently about 41,000 individuals in our immigration detention facilities, including over 4,400 Haitians. Typically, the number in immigration detention is about 31,000 to 34,000,” he said.
The expedited removal process of immigrants who fail to express a fear of death or persecution if they are returned to their home countries — a preliminary step to determining asylum eligibility — has put advocates, who have been working hard to represent detainees, on edge.
As of early November, an advocate who visited Haitian detainees at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico told ThinkProgress that there were roughly 136 Haitian immigrant detainees who have been waiting for court proceedings since September. At least eight of those detainees, who are receiving legal representation, are still in detention as of this writing.
Multiple detainees reportedly told the advocate — who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal by the detention center — that they could not return to Haiti and that they were afraid “their lives might be in danger because of the Haitian elections and the opposition [party].” A spate of violent protests in Haiti took place in the days leading up to October 9, when the election was supposed to take place before it was derailed by Hurricane Matthew.
“One young gentlemen I talked to said that one time people visited his house and killed his mom,” the advocate said. “He said he had no choice, so he left Haiti to go to Brazil. From Brazil, he made the journey through as many as nine countries all the way up to Mexico, and through California. Now they’re in detention.”
Still others may become refugees in their own countries if they are returned by the U.S. government. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, roughly 61,500 people were displaced and 750,000 people were in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the U.S. AID agency. There were also about 1,000 suspected cases of cholera among children in just the past month, according to a United Nations press release.
“One month after the hurricane, life for more than half a million children in Haiti is still far from back to normal,” Marc Vincent, Haiti Representative for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in a news release earlier this month. “Too many children are still homeless, hungry, out of school and in danger. We are scaling up our response and are determined to help as many of them as possible as fast as we can.”