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WASHINGTON — The U.S. knew in July that thousands of Haitians were heading to the U.S. border, but a failure to share intelligence and an internal debate over whether to increase deportations left immigration officials ill-equipped to handle the 28,000 who converged on a Texas bridge last month, three U.S. officials said.
The officials said the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged the failures internally and has made them part of its discussions to be better prepared for any future surge.
Two of the officials said that the debate over starting deportations before the migrant surge in Del Rio, Texas, was a political battle between progressives and others at DHS and that the progressives won, delaying deportation flights.
Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis all had information as far back as July that indicated that large groups of Haitians were making their way north from South and Central America to the U.S. border, the three officials said. But the intelligence was not shared widely enough within DHS and across agencies to indicate the size or speed of the group of migrants or that they would all arrive in one location.
In an interview Sept. 20 in Del Rio, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said, “I don’t think we expected the rapidity of the increase that occurred.”
Throughout the summer, two of the officials said, there were also disagreements within the Biden administration over whether it should increase deportations of Haitians already in the U.S. illegally.
The two officials said some argued that deportations — even of small numbers — would deter more people from coming, particularly Haitians living in South America. Others maintained that it would be inhumane to send Haitians back to a country in turmoil after the assassination of its president and, on Aug. 14, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake.
Ultimately, the Biden administration opted not to ramp up deportations, and it then halted all deportation flights to the impoverished island country shortly after the earthquake. By mid-September, seeing the large numbers massing in Del Rio, ICE restarted the flights, and it has now deported more than 7,200 migrants to Haiti.
The disagreement over whether to ramp up deportations reveals internal divides within the administration over how harsh border policies should be. Biden, who ran in opposition to former President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda, promised a “fair, safe and orderly” immigration system. During his administration, border crossings have surged, passing records not recorded in two decades.
The three officials said DHS is conducting an internal review of the factors that led to the rapid increase in the number of Haitian migrants in Del Rio. One said the review will allow the government to “allocate appropriate resources” to prepare for future surges. More than 20,000 Haitians are already in northern Colombia and thousands more are in Panama who may soon decide to move toward the U.S.
DHS spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said in a statement that the department’s “humanitarian and operational response” to the situation in Del Rio “was swift, immediately deploying personnel, basic services, food and drinking water, clothing, transportation, and medical resources.”
“In coordination with partners across the federal government, the Department assesses the operational need for removal and expulsion flights daily,” Espinosa said. “We are undertaking the monumental task to rebuild our previously decimated immigration system. Doing so requires that we address extremely complicated policy and operational issues. We not only respect differences of opinion; we encourage them as a hallmark of good ideas and good government.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Julia Ainsley is a correspondent covering the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
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