More than 1,400 Haitians have made it into the United States by boat since last October, the majority of them landing in Puerto Rico. But what happens to the migrants after they have been taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection is often a mystery, immigration advocates say.
“We don’t know where they are,” said Randy McGrorty, executive director of Miami-based Catholic Legal Services, which provides free legal services to undocumented Haitians and other recent arrivals. “We can’t know the trends because we don’t know where they are.”
Customs has apprehended 793 Haitian migrants in Puerto Rico and 657 Haitian migrants in Florida since October.
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The Keys have been the site of most landings in the state, a sign of new trafficking routes. In Puerto Rico, Haitians are arriving on uninhabited islands and towns on the island’s western coast.
McGrorty said that in the first three weeks of May his lawyers have seen an increase in Haitian migrants at the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, but it’s unclear if these are boat arrivals or from the U.S.-Mexico border. Other advocates say they have registered recent Haitian boat arrivals from Puerto Rico in Pennsylvania detention facilities.
“More family members are calling us trying to get help locating where their loved ones are,” said Marleine Bastien, a Miami immigration and Haitian advocate who recently organized a protest in front of a Customs detention facility in Dania Beach after a boat ferrying 356 Haitians ended up in north Key Largo. “We are greatly concerned about this.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a Miami Herald question about whether the recent arrivals were typically detained or released while they await resolution on their immigration cases, and if they were released, under what conditions.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas emphasized the point last week as he visited the U.S.-Mexico border. The visit came just days after 11 Haitian migrants died after their boat capsized about 11 miles from Desecheo Island — the second capsizing involving U.S.-bound migrants in four months — and days before the Biden administration planned to end a controversial Trump-era public health law known as Title 42 that has been used to restrict immigration by expediently removing most migrants.
Though it had only been applied at the United States’ land border, Mayorkas conceded that the expected end of Title 42 on Monday could lead to a surge in migration. In his warning to migrants that anyone who doesn’t qualify for asylum in the United States will be removed, he referred to the recent Puerto Rico tragedy. Late Friday, a federal judge in Louisiana issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Biden administration from lifting Title 42.
“As the temperature rises seasonally, we see the tragedy more of individuals placing their lives in the hands of smugglers who only seek to exploit them for profit,” Mayorkas said.
In Puerto Rico, a Roman Catholic priest, Father Olin Pierre-Louis, runs a shelter from the San Mateo de Cangrejos Church. The Haitian migrants who come to his church are given immigration notices to appear, which start removal proceedings. Some who don’t end up at the sanctuary, he said, are sent to Florida and Pennsylvania for processing and detention.
“For those who have been released, we don’t know under what conditions they have been released. Do they have a place to go? Are they given work authorization? And that is all determined by the manner of release,” McGrorty said.
The Iglesias San Mateo de Cangrejos in San Juan, which has a makeshift shelter at the back, is the first stop for many Haitian migrants who arrive at Puerto Rico’s shores. But lately, so many migrants are coming into Puerto Rico that San Mateo has prioritized the most vulnerable: pregnant women, children and the sick. Within the span of a few days this month, Customs and Border Protection intercepted 119 people who came on two boats and disembarked on the island’s western shores.
“Too many people are arriving,” said Pierre-Louis. ”And I don’t have the capacity to take them all in.”
Since last October, the U.S. Coast Guard has interdicted more than 5,000 Haitians at sea. It is the largest exodus in almost two decades, the agency said, exacerbated by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last July, a major earthquake five weeks later in the country’s southern region and a surge in gang violence and kidnappings.
Bridget Cambria, executive director of Aldea, a Pennsylvania-based immigration legal services group, said that the state’s federal detention centers have been receiving Haitian migrants who came to Puerto Rico by boat since February, something which she had never seen before.
Her group has been in contact with about 50 Haitian women in the women-only Berks County Facility. The organization also received a call this month from several Haitian men passing around the phone at the Moshannon Valley Correctional Facility in western Pennsylvania, where they also have clients at a lesser volume.
“Why would they bring them all the way here?” she said. “It is really strange.”
Her organization says Haitians there are being interviewed by immigration officers about their requests for asylum, which she described as difficult for Haitians because of language barriers, a lack of access to attorneys and because they just came off traumatic journeys.
“As a practitioner, I’ve done thousands of interviews. I’ve never seen cases where people express issues of clear persecution and clear harm and fail those interviews … but that’s what I’m seeing with the Haitian asylum seekers that have ended up here,” Cambria said.
She said that for a group of Haitian women held in Berks who had come to Puerto Rico by boat, an immigration judge found they had credible fear claims after asylum officers had said they did not.
“There are a lot of people slipping through the cracks because they don’t have counsel or understand the proceedings they are in,” she said.
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