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In September 2021, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had trapped thousands of Haitian immigrants under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas in inhumane conditions that violated U.S. legal requirements for detention. Haitians were forced to return to Mexico to get food to feed their families in the camp, and when they returned, agents on horseback tried to stop them.
The Del Rio disaster produced the most enduring images of border chaos under the Biden administration, and we now have the clearest proof yet that it was entirely unnecessary. CBP had the legal authority to let Haitians in legally and avoid the entire situation—a process that it finally created this summer, nearly ending illegal immigration from Haiti.
Leading up to the Del Rio detention camp, CBP had refused to admit the Haitians legally at ports of entry. When Haitians responded by crossing illegally to request asylum, CBP even closed the closest legal crossing point—yards from the detention camp—for everyone. In a lengthy February 2022 analysis of Haitian and Cuban migration, I described how CBP created this situation by denying Haitians the right to apply for asylum at ports of entry where—until 2019—almost all Haitians had entered the country legally.
In 2019, the Trump administration capped the number of admissions at ports of entry, deprioritized Haitians, and then started to return asylum seekers to Mexico even if they applied at ports of entry. Seeing the direction of policy, most Haitians gave up waiting to cross legally. Virtually all gave up waiting in 2020 when CBP completely shut down asylum processing at ports of entry, closing off all “non‐essential” travel.
Figure 1 shows the percentage of Haitians entering the United States by legality. The implementation of the Remain in Mexico program turned a 99.5 percent legal flow to a 90+ percent illegal flow. Closing ports during the pandemic pushed the illegal flow to almost 100 percent of crossings. The reopening of ports for Haitians this summer flipped the processing back to 97 percent legal. CBP created a massive illegal immigration problem and then solved it.
Once they are allowed to appear at a port of entry, Haitians are given a notice to appear in immigration court and released. Nonprofit organizations in the United States help them reach their final destinations. Despite the fact that the administration has done virtually nothing to publicize this process, Haitians are learning via word of mouth about the possibility of crossing legally. Once Haitians began to be admitted in larger numbers, the word passed down to others. CNN’s Rosa Flores and Julia Jones reported last month about how this has happened:
About a dozen other migrants at the shelter [in Reynosa, Mexico] told CNN that they also learned from social media platforms, like Instagram and Facebook, that an organization in Reynosa was helping migrants cross into the United States legally.
The actual process for gaining admission is opaque. CBP is accepting referrals of asylum seekers from select non‐profit organizations working along the border. In June of 2021, the administration selected six groups to refer asylum seekers to ports of entry. Following that, CBP started to accept some referrals including a few Haitians, but then shut down the small‐scale processing at the end of August 2021. In April 2022, the administration said it was trying to rebuild this process, and in September, it said, “DHS has, beginning July 13, 2022, begun to gradually increase the number of humanitarian exceptions it applies, subject to operational constraints.”
In theory, this asylum referral process is open to any asylum seeker from any country, and some non‐Haitians are being processed on a case‐by‐case basis as well. However, it is clear that Haitians are now a priority. During the small‐scale processing from June to August 2021, Haitians were just 9 percent of all non‐Mexicans encountered at ports of entry. During June to August 2022, Haitians were 45 percent. The total flow of Haitians—legal and illegal—was larger last year—19,000 versus 16,000 this year, so the higher share of Haitians being processed is not because of increased demand.
Unfortunately, CBP still feels the need to limit this process for other groups. It processed over 20,000 Ukrainian asylum seekers at ports of entry in the spring, but after it created a process where Ukrainians can fly directly to the United States, it has still not reached that rate of admissions since then. CBP has proven that permitting legal entry can end the border crisis. It just needs to apply what it has learned to other nationalities seeking to enter the country. Figure 2 compares the percentage of legal crossings for Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, and immigrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle.
Most strange is the fact that CBP has not applied this process to Cubans because Cubans had historically always entered legally at ports of entry alongside Haitians until 2019. Moreover, Cuba will not accept more than a very small number of deportations every year, so Border Patrol has to release them, meaning that there is no reason not to just process and release them at ports of entry. The same point is true for Venezuelans who the Maduro regime will not accept back.
While the process has worked for Haitians, CBP should stop relying on border nonprofits as the gatekeepers for asylum. The shelter in Reynosa described by CNN above was completely full, so anyone who cannot find a place to live while they try to get referred has no choice but to cross illegally. CBP needs to allow people to register for admission online before they reach the border and then quickly process them. This would end the border chaos.
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