Biden faces potential new refugee crisis amid unrest in Haiti and Cuba

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned this week that anyone planning to flee 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 native country.

“If you go to 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 at a press conference on Tuesday.

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

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

Mayorkas’ comments, which were echoed by White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday, did not reflect any change in US policy, and they were not, according to Mayorkas, released in response to a recent increase in number of migrants encountered off the American coasts of one or the other country. Cuba and Haiti are currently facing major political upheavals.

Rather, the warning appears to have been a precautionary measure by the Biden administration to avert a potential migrant crisis in the Caribbean, resulting from the concomitant chaos that first unfolded in Haiti, following the assassination of the president last week. Jovenel Moïse, then to Cuba, where unprecedented national protests against the long-standing Communist regime erupted this week.

Barely six months into his presidency, immigration has already emerged as a serious political challenge for President Biden, who has pledged to replace the harsh 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 US president attempting to manage immigration policy.

Entering the White House in January, Biden sent Congress a sweeping immigration reform bill and signed a series of executive orders to overturn several Trump-era restrictions. While these initial actions had little to no practical impact on migrants attempting to seek asylum in the United States, news that the new president would be more welcoming to migrants quickly spread, with the help of smugglers, to vulnerable communities in Mexico and the Center. America. At the end of March, Mayorkas said US border officials were “about to meet more people on the southwest border than we have had in the past 20 years.”

While the majority of migrants are still deported from the border under a pandemic-related policy inherited from the Trump era, Republicans have taken hold of the influx, saying Biden’s policies have caused a “crisis border “.

Protesters staged a rare protest against Cuba's Communist government in Havana last Sunday, chanting

Protesters staged a rare protest against the Cuban 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, senior researcher at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute and director of the institute’s office in Haiti. New York University Law School.

Although Chishti described the current situation on the US-Mexico border as a “perceived political crisis” that “Republicans have been too keen to exploit”, he said that “until this crisis subsides, any new person coming, either to the shores or on the ground at the border, will add oil to their fire.

Government data shows that Cuban and Haitian migrants, who historically received radically different treatment in the United States, had arrived in increasing numbers before the most recent events that plunged the two countries into turmoil.

And while Mayorkas said on Tuesday that U.S. officials had not encountered an influx of migrant boats bound for Florida, there is a history of coincident national crises in Haiti and Cuba, resulting in waves of refugees that overlap.

On Monday, Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Whose parents immigrated from Cuba to the United States two years before Castro came to power, raised the possibility that the current upheavals in Cuba could trigger another exodus, urging Biden in a letter to “warn the regime that any effort to encourage mass migration will be viewed and treated as hostile action against the United States.”

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

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

For immigration and refugee rights advocates, many of whom celebrated Biden’s selection de Mayorkas for the head of internal security, the warning to Cuban and Haitian migrants appeared to serve as a reminder of Trump’s harsh policies that remain in place, contradicting Biden’s promise “Respect our laws with humanity and preserve the dignity of immigrant families, refugees and asylum seekers”.

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

“At a time of acute crisis in Haiti and Cuba, the United States should fully respect the right to seek asylum, not restrict access based on how people arrive, treat them abroad , then relocate them to a third country, ”Bell said.

Under U.S. and international law, foreign nationals who express a fear of persecution in their home country can apply for asylum. no matter how they entered the United States However, US authorities have banned Haitian and Cuban migrants who attempt to reach the country by boat for decades. The majority are simply turned away without the possibility of being screened for humanitarian protections, although in the past a small portion of potential refugees have been sent to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base for an interview with an asylum officer and, if their request is deemed legitimate, returned to a third country, like Australia, for resettlement.

Haitians gather in front of the United States Embassy following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 9.

Haitians gather in front of the United States Embassy in Port-au-Prince on July 9, following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. (Estaïlove St-val / Reuters)

As a candidate, Biden also pledged to reinstate previous ones parole programs for family reunification for Haitian and Cuban nationals who had been terminated under Trump. At his press conference on Tuesday, Mayorkas said DHS is evaluating these programs, but to date they have not been relaunched. He also noted that new arrivals from Haiti would not be eligible for the temporary protection status he announced for the country in May, citing “Haiti’s serious security problems, social unrest, an increase in human rights violations, crippling poverty and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. “

EDS 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 other permanent immigration status, was repeatedly extended until January 2018, when the Trump administration announced it would end special consideration for Haiti, putting around 50,000 Haitian TPS holders at risk of deportation. , although several lawsuits have allowed the protections to remain in effect.

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

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

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

Despite Mayorkas’ attempts to point out the very serious, sometimes fatal, risks associated with crossing the Caribbean by boat, especially during hurricane season, Wendy Young, president of the nonprofit legal aid association Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, argued that the administration’s efforts to discourage Cubans and Haitians from seeking safety in the United States is “ineffective” because it “fails to recognize the fear and despair that motivates such migration ”.

“No rhetoric from Washington will dissuade them from seeking safety because they have no other course of action,” she said. “If they stay at home, they risk serious harm and, in some cases, death. “

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

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

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