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Democrats See Broken Promises in Biden’s Haiti Policies

After high-profile resignations, Biden diplomats scramble to shore up stability in Haiti and stem migration.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Haitian migrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border on the Rio Grande.
Haitian migrants cross the U.S.-Mexico border on the Rio Grande as seen from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on Sept. 20. Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

A senior U.S. diplomat is on her way to Haiti as U.S. President Joe Biden faces senior officials’ defections and mounting pressure from his own party over the administration’s controversial efforts to forcibly deport Haitians fleeing the country’s political turmoil and violence.

Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s top envoy for human rights and democracy, will travel to Haiti on Oct. 11, according to a senior administration official, the latest in a string of high-profile visits to the country as the Biden administration scrambles to stem the flow of migrants fleeing Haiti and help the country restore a semblance of political stability after the assassination of the Haitian president in July. Two other top Biden officials, Juan Gonzalez, the U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, and Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, visited Haiti earlier this month.

The U.S. policy toward Haiti, such as it is, has been thrown into stark relief in recent weeks after the high-profile resignations of senior State Department officials who quit their jobs in protest of the Biden administration’s policy of forcibly deporting Haitian migrants in what they described as a cruel and inhumane practice.

A senior U.S. diplomat is on her way to Haiti as U.S. President Joe Biden faces senior officials’ defections and mounting pressure from his own party over the administration’s controversial efforts to forcibly deport Haitians fleeing the country’s political turmoil and violence.

Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s top envoy for human rights and democracy, will travel to Haiti on Oct. 11, according to a senior administration official, the latest in a string of high-profile visits to the country as the Biden administration scrambles to stem the flow of migrants fleeing Haiti and help the country restore a semblance of political stability after the assassination of the Haitian president in July. Two other top Biden officials, Juan Gonzalez, the U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, and Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, visited Haiti earlier this month.

The U.S. policy toward Haiti, such as it is, has been thrown into stark relief in recent weeks after the high-profile resignations of senior State Department officials who quit their jobs in protest of the Biden administration’s policy of forcibly deporting Haitian migrants in what they described as a cruel and inhumane practice.

The resignations of Daniel Foote, the special envoy for Haiti, and Harold Koh, the State Department’s senior legal advisor, fueled a new political battle between Biden and his allies in Congress—a rare sign of discord in the Democratic Party over the president’s foreign-policy agenda. During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the matter with Foote, some Democratic lawmakers publicly rebuked the president over his approach to Haiti while others attributed the handling of Haitian migrants to racism.

The new high-level focus on Haiti in Washington showcases how Biden’s efforts to soften the Trump-era crackdown on migrants and enact more humane migration and refugee policies have run aground. It also sheds light on how team Biden is struggling to address a confluence of refugee crises across Latin America that are spilling across the U.S. southern border, with no end in sight.

The senior administration official said the administration is currently tracking some 20,000 Haitian migrants who are in Colombia and likely preparing to travel north to attempt to cross into the United States.

“We’re in very close communication with Colombia, with Panama, to address this challenge, which is humanitarian, [and] it’s also one where the migrants themselves face physical danger, particularly given the activity of criminal groups in those areas,” the senior administration official said. “The sustainable way to address this issue is to make sure the countries in this region have a collaborative approach to migration management, asylum, and refugees.”

The United States provides around $200 million in humanitarian assistance to Haiti annually, and in recent weeks, it pledged $5.5 million to support Haitian migrants who were deported through United Nations agencies, according to the official. Other U.S. officials said the U.S. government is allowing some Haitian migrants to remain in the United States and apply for humanitarian protections while deporting others and trying to deter more migrants from attempting to make the dangerous and circuitous journey to the U.S. border.

Officials said the United States remains committed to the fair and humane treatment of migrants seeking to come into the United States while simultaneously working to address the root causes of political instability in Haiti, punctuated by the assassination of late Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July. Moïse’s assassination fueled a fresh wave of uncertainty and instability, and U.S. officials attribute the recent influx of Haitian migrants in part to the fallout from his killing. Haiti is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

The country was struck by a devastating earthquake in August that killed at least 2,200 people and left 650,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance, without homes, schools, and hospitals. That combined with gang-related displacement and violence, the lingering threat of famine, and a population almost entirely unvaccinated against COVID-19 has compounded an already dire political and humanitarian situation.

In Washington, Democratic lawmakers are increasingly lashing out at the administration over its deportation of Haitian migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Oct. 8, 16 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voiced their disappointment over the mistreatment of Haitian migrants at the border and called on the Biden administration to appoint a new special envoy for Haiti after Foote’s resignation. Foote resigned late last month after six months on the job.

“I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti,” Foote wrote in a resignation letter to Blinken, which promptly leaked. Soon after, Koh resigned after issuing a searing internal memo regarding Haitian and other migrants at the southern U.S. border, which Politico first reported.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The Biden administration has continued a Trump-era policy of removing migrants from the southern border amid the coronavirus pandemic under a public health authority known as “Title 42.” In recent weeks, the Department of Homeland Security cleared out a makeshift camp of some 15,000 Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, and sent most either south across the Mexican border or back to Haiti, as Department of Homeland Security data reportedly showed.

During the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Foote on Thursday, Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas, who represents a district on the California-Mexico border, sharply rebuked how the administration handled the matter, saying it was rooted in racism.

“I thought it was a terrible overreaction by the administration, and frankly, I don’t see any other way to describe it other than racism,” he said. “I don’t believe that if it had been any other group other than people who were Black that we would have reacted this way.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Zinya Salfiti is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @zinyasalfitii

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