The Biden administration has also come under fire from immigrant advocates and some Democrats during the past 10 days for sending too many Haitians back to their destitute homeland.
The administration appears to be navigating a delicate path, using the return flights to Haiti to deter more migrants from crossing into the United States while also assuring Democrats and immigrant advocates that many Haitians are being allowed to remain in the country to apply for humanitarian protection.
When Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared at the White House on Sept. 24 to announce the camp’s closure, he faced reporters who had been pressing the administration for days to disclose the number of migrants who had been released into the United States. The numbers Mayorkas provided mostly added to the fog.
About 15,000 mostly Haitian border-crossers had reached the makeshift camp under the international bridge in Del Rio, but Mayorkas cited a larger sample size, saying 30,000 migrants had crossed into Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector between Sept. 9 and 24.
The 30,000 included all nationalities, not only Haitians, and represented a count of all those taken into custody in the Del Rio border sector — including at the camp.
Of those 30,000, more than 12,000 have been allowed to pursue their claims in U.S. immigration courts, Mayorkas said, and 8,000 “voluntarily returned to Mexico.” There were 5,000 who remained in processing, he said.
“I will tell you that it is unprecedented for us to see that number of people arrive in one discrete point along the border in such a compacted period of time,” Mayorkas said.
Most of the 8,000 who returned to Mexico departed the Del Rio camp, according to the three DHS officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the data. Those migrants turned back after the administration began sending planeloads of migrants to Haiti on Sept. 19, as the camp population reached its peak.
Since then, the Biden administration has shuttled more than 5,500 returnees back to Haiti, running as many as seven flights per day to Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien, the country’s second-largest city. DHS officials were unable to provide further information on the current whereabouts of the 30,000 migrants Mayorkas cited a week ago.
“It would be helpful to understand the real number of Haitian migrants who have arrived and how their cases were resolved and with what criteria,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “There has been some confusion around this so far.”
One of the reasons the Del Rio camp emptied so quickly — several days ahead of Mayorkas’s pledge to close it by the end of September — was the decision by so many Haitians to cross the Rio Grande back to Mexico, two DHS officials said. Many of those migrants remain in northern Mexico and still intend to cross into the United States, they acknowledged.
DHS and Customs and Border Protection officials say it is difficult to provide a more precise breakdown of enforcement outcomes among the migrants who reached the camp, because border officials collect data by sector, not by specific geographic locations.
DHS officials say most of the migrants who returned to Haiti on flights since Sept. 19 were taken into custody in the Del Rio Sector, but the more than 5,500 sent back so far could also include border-crossers who arrived elsewhere.
Mayorkas said the Biden administration is evaluating migrants on a case-by-base basis to determine whether they can be safely returned to Haiti, or whether they have a medical condition or other vulnerability that places them at too great a risk.
Haiti’s president was assassinated in July, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck in August, and swaths of the country are under the control of armed gangs aligned with political parties.
U.S. authorities have returned single Haitian adults as well as parents with children, statistics show. About two-thirds of the migrants who reached the Del Rio camp were part of a family group.
An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Haitian migrants are en route to the United States, transiting through Colombia, Panama, Mexico and other points, according to governments and aid groups in the region. Mexican authorities have started direct deportation flights to Haiti.
This week, the U.N. refugee agency, the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF and the U.N. human rights office called on governments to refrain from expelling Haitians without a full assessment of their needs and vulnerabilities, and to offer more options to give them access to legal migration pathways.
“The complex social, economic, humanitarian and political situation, and the various catastrophes affecting Haiti, some of which are linked to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation, have led to different population movements from the Caribbean country in the past decade,” said the refugee agency, UNHCR.
Most of the Haitians headed to the U.S. border have been living for the past several years in Brazil, Chile and other nations in South America, where they arrived after the 2010 earthquake devastated their homeland.
In interviews, they cite the economic toll of the pandemic, tighter restrictions on immigrants and a perception that the Biden administration would allow them to stay as reasons for seeking entry into the United States.
“Haitians on the move in the Americas comprise people with different protection needs, profiles and motivations, including unaccompanied and separated children, victims of trafficking, and survivors of gender-based violence,” the U.N. statement said. “Some may have well-founded grounds to request international refugee protection. Others may have other protection needs.”
The Biden administration said it has provided $5.5 million to assist Haiti returnees, who are given a cash handout of about $100 when they land.