Nov 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biden eyes expanded Guantanamo migrant center as Haiti crisis deepens

People flee their homes during an attack by armed gangs in the Carrefour Feuille neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

People flee their homes during an attack by armed gangs in the Carrefour Feuille neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is preparing for the possibility of mass migration from Haiti by expanding a migrant center on Guantanamo Bay and looking into the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos for temporary new holding sites, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Haiti has been beset by gang violence, fuel shortages and a recent cholera outbreak. For months, the administration has held informal planning meetings on how to hold potentially hundreds of migrants at a time, before quickly returning them to the beleaguered island.

By the numbers: There was a significant uptick in the number of Haitians interdicted at sea last year, with 7,175 Haitians interdicted in fiscal year 2022 compared to 1,527 the year before — and just 418 during FY 2020, according to Coast Guard data provided to Axios.

  • A National Security Council spokesperson told Axios "the number of Haitians interdicted at sea has significantly decreased in recent months" and "no decisions have been made."

State of play: Gang control of Haiti's ports has wreaked havoc on the island, making it difficult for people to obtain fuel, water and food. The gang crisis has made it more difficult for the U.S. to quickly return Haitians interdicted at sea.

  • Officials have had to deport interdicted migrants by plane to Haitian airports — first taking them to the Migrant Operation Center (MOC) on Guantanamo Bay, which is jointly overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense and the State Department, according to two U.S. officials and internal government documents obtained by Axios.
  • One U.S. official, however, told Axios the government is currently able to return Haitian migrants at seaports as well.

Zoom in: Use of the MOC is not new. For decades, migrants interdicted at sea who fear persecution at home have been held there while officials search for a third country to host them.

  • The migrant center is separate from the part of Guantanamo Bay that houses the infamous U.S. military prison. Still, the use of the base for migration has been viewed with skepticism.
  • NBC News first reported on the administration's planning for a surge of Haitian migrants, as well as reaction from migrant rights advocates who hope to avoid the use of Guantanamo Bay.
  • "The U.S. government always does contingency planning out of an abundance of caution, and for a wide range of potential scenarios," the NSC spokesperson told Axios.

What to watch: The government is already making efforts to expand capacity to hold up to 400 migrants at a time.

  • The Department of Homeland Security has requested that the Department of Defense be prepared — within 48 hours of being called on — to set up tents to accommodate up to 1,000 Haitians on the base, according to documents viewed by Axios.
  • At the same time, DHS and the State Department are considering alternative locations to hold Haitians before they can be flown back to Port-au-Prince — including the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos — to avoid expanding the site on Guantanamo Bay.

On the ground: The U.N.'s International Organization for Migration provides assistance to Haitians who are deported back to the country.

  • A U.N. Haiti spokesperson told Axios the agency has been looking for ways to replenish supplies for returnees — such as food, hygiene kits and cellphones to contact family members — in "anticipation of departures and interdictions at sea."
  • The security situation has made it more difficult for IOM staff in Haiti to reach airports, IOM offices or other repatriation sites.
  • "IOM staff is working on the frontlines to respond to the holistic necessities of returnees," Daniele Febei, IOM head of operations in Haiti, told Axios in a statement. "IOM teams in Haiti continue to raise awareness of migrants on the risks related to irregular migration and inform them on the legal migration channels.”

The big picture: The use of the Bahamas or the expanded use of Guantanamo Bay would be the latest in a long string of controversial U.S. policies on Haitian migration.

  • The U.S. has used Guantanamo Bay to hold migrants interdicted at sea since the 1970s, according to Migration Policy Institute's Muzaffar Chishti.
  • In 1981, then-President Reagan signed an agreement with the Haitian government allowing the U.S. to interdict Haitian ships suspected of carrying undocumented immigrants. The move was harshly criticized by some at the time.
  • Then came the 1994 Haitian migrant crisis. Tens of thousands of Haitians and Cubans were kept in a makeshift refugee camp on the U.S. base in Cuba.
  • As recently as September 2021, tens of thousands of Haitians arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, where they formed their own migrant camp. The Biden administration leveraged the Trump-era Title 42, a policy originally instigated by the pandemic, to promptly return thousands of them back to Haiti — without a chance at asylum.

The bottom line: Despite the administration's outspoken concern about the current situation in Haiti, its planning on the migration front is intended to prevent Haitians from reaching the U.S. mainland and return them to the island as quickly as possible, according to two government officials familiar with ongoing conversations and internal documents.

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