The US has suspended deportation flights to Haiti, in the latest sign the Biden administration is attempting to assert control over the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Ice, according to community activists and congressional sources.
The reported halt to Haitian flights came after a night of frantic calls from community activists and congressional staffers to the office of the newly confirmed secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas. It is unclear how long the suspension will last, and Ice did not reply to a request for comment on Friday morning.
On taking office, Joe Biden ordered a 100-day moratorium on deportation while the system and procedures for removal of migrants and asylum seekers were subject to review. But on 26 January, a Trump-appointed Texas judge issued a stay on the moratorium being implemented, and Ice resumed – and in some cases stepped up – deportations to Africa, Haiti and Central America.
The deportations defied guidelines laid down by the Biden team, stipulating that removals should be focused on suspected terrorists and convicted felons who were a danger to the public. Since being confirmed by the Senate, Mayorkas and his team have been seeking to rein in Ice, according to congressional sources.
A flight due to leave for Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo was halted from taking off at the last minute on Thursday, so that the would-be deportees could be witnesses in an investigation into allegations of physical abuse by Ice agents. The cancellation and investigation mark a significant change in policy.
Ice had also stepped up flights deporting Haitians detained at the southern border. On Thursday, there were two flights. Most of the removals were deemed expulsions under a 1944 public health statute, called Title 42, which had rarely been used before the Trump administration.
Human rights activists have argued that the upsurge in political violence and lawlessness in Haiti meant that any deportations there would be unsafe.
The calls to Mayorkas’s team on Thursday night and the early hours of Friday are believed to have involved Guerline Jozef, the co-founder of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an immigrant support group; Patrice Lawrence, national policy and advocacy director for the UndocuBlack Network; and staff from the Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen’s office.
Jozef would not confirm the details of the discussions but said: “I haven’t slept for 96 hours. This is such a big win.
“They were running two flights in a day in their hurry to deport as many people as possible,” she said. “We had babies as young as four or five months old. We were so disturbed that we were determined that for now, those people will be protected.”
“Unfortunately, when it comes down to black immigrants, we’re the low-hanging fruit,” said Lawrence. Changing that, she added is “about political will and understanding that sometimes you have to take risks”.
In recent days, US authorities have also been returning Haitians who arrived through Mexico, from El Paso, Texas, back to the border city of Ciudad Juárez on foot, in apparent violation of a Trump administration agreement with the Mexican government. When the US invoked Title 42 as the coronavirus spread, Mexico agreed to accept Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans who had travelled through its territory but not Haitians.