Melissa: Now turn your attention away from the Southwest United States and look all the way to the Southeast, to Florida, southernmost big city, Miami. Track just 689 miles south of Miami through the Caribbean Sea and you'll come to the island nation of Haiti, which was struck last week by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed thousands and left many more injured and missing.
More than 80,000 homes were destroyed in the earthquake, leaving tens of thousands without adequate shelter. Heavy rains from tropical depression grays are further complicating the suffering and stalling relief efforts. All this comes amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and a political crisis made worse by the recent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Haiti is less than 700 miles from Miami, but US borders remained close to Haitians fleeing political crisis and the devastation of multiple disasters.
For more on that, we're joined by Nicole Narea Immigration Reporter at Vox. Nicole, welcome back to the show.
Nicole Narea: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
Melissa: What is the current US policy towards Haitian immigrants?
Nicole Narea: There are a few things to consider here. First of all, there are Haitians arriving by the US-Mexico border. They're currently being kept out under what's called the Title 42 policy, which was implemented under the Trump administration at the outset of the pandemic last year. It's a policy that Biden's opted to keep in place indefinitely. More than a million people, including Haitians, have been expelled back to Mexico or back to Haiti under that policy on pandemic-related grounds, though public health experts say there's no real epidemiological rationale for keeping that in place and that people should be able to cross the border safely if the policy were lifted.
Melissa: Could we pause just on that one policy aspect for just a moment, because I'm old enough to remember when Haitians were also banned from US immigration as a result of HIV/AIDS. I'm wondering if there's some resonance of that in this policy.
Nicole Narea: Absolutely. I think that it's impossible to really look at these migration policies of the Biden administration and more recent administrations without treating it as part of a legacy of disparate treatment of Haitian migrants on the part of the US. What you're referring to, like the most egregious example, was under the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton when Haitian votes were intercepted and the migrants were kept in an offshore migrant camp in Guantanamo Bay, in some cases, under horrific conditions.
As you mentioned, a segment of those migrants were HIV positive and Clinton didn't release them into the US until he was backed into a corner by various court cases. Given that kind of legacy, these policies that have been implemented both at the US-Mexico border at sea and in deporting Haitians back to really turbulent conditions in their home country, are all part of that legacy, I'd say.
There's a contrast between what the Biden administration has responded on the ground in terms of actually delivering aid in Haiti versus how it's handling Haitians who are facing these increasingly difficult circumstances and arriving on the US doorstep.
Melissa: Why doesn't the Temporary Protected Status or TPS apply in such a way that it would protect Haitians in this moment?
Nicole Narea: The Biden administration did opt to expand TPS in the aftermath of the president's assassination in July, but that only applies to Haitians who were in the US as of July 29th. The Biden administration said that it's not actually planning to expand eligibility for TPS to Haitians who are continuing to arrive in the US after the earthquake. As political violence has escalated, gang violence has escalated on the ground, that move did make another hundred thousand or so Haitians eligible for TPS, but it's not really helping anyone who's trying to get to the US now and seek protection.
Melissa: Again, on folks who were already here, though, I know that there was a pause briefly earlier this year on deportation flights, have those flights resumed? Are we actually sending people back to Haiti under these current disaster circumstances?
Nicole Narea: There have been dozens of flights that the Biden ministration has chartered to Haiti since he took office. One arrived just days before the earthquake hit. These planes have been carrying vulnerable people like pregnant women and babies. Advocates are asking at this point for those flights to be put on hold indefinitely. The Biden administration did say that there were any deportation flights scheduled for last week, but the commitment doesn't really last any longer than that.
At this point, advocates are really looking for a bit of a longer-term commitment, just because the conditions on the ground, aren't going to meaningfully change over the course of a week or even months.
Melissa: Help us understand the magnitude. How many Haitians typically seek entry into the US on an annual basis?
Nicole Narea: There's at least, in a typical year, in 2018, for example, which is the last year that we have data from the government. There were more than 140,000 Haitian immigrants who arrived in the US legally, but there is a big diaspora population here of roughly 1.2 million Haitians. That may not account for all the people who are trying to get here. It's also worth mentioning that there's somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 Haitians waiting in Mexico for a chance to cross the US-Mexico border at this point. It's possible there may be more on their way.
One of the indicators of that is we're seeing migration levels at the Darién Gap, which is a migration quarter on the border of Panama and Colombia frequented by Haitians. Those levels have been higher this year than they have been in the last three years combined with about 43,000 micro crossings. That suggests that more people are leaving the country and making their way through Central America.
Melissa: You mentioned the Biden administration focus on relief efforts in this moment, actually in-country relief efforts. I'm wondering, is that connected to this-- as Vice President Harris articulated the, please, don't come, don't cross here. Is that what we're seeing here? We'll help you in Haiti, but please don't come here.
Nicole Narea: Yes, I think it is dramatically in the same vein. The Biden administration has really focused its immigration policy on addressing the root causes of migration as they're calling it but they've had a very different stance towards migrants who are arriving at the US border. They did explicitly say to Haitians as well as Cubans who are fleeing political crisis, that they warned them against coming by boat because they will not be admitted to the US. I think it very much is in the same vein of this rhetoric of don't come.
Melissa: Nicole Narea is an immigration reporter for Vox. Nicole, thanks so much for joining us.
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