Letter: Biden Administration Must Prioritize Protections for Haitian Nationals

The Hon. Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20500

CC: The Honorable Kamala D. Harris, Vice President of the United States  

Attorney General Garland, Department of Justice 

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Department of Homeland Security  

Secretary Antony Blinken, Department of State 

Secretary Xavier Becerra, Department of Health and Human Services 

Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Agency for International Development

Advisor Jake Sullivan, National Security Council

Ambassador Susan Rice, Domestic Policy Council


November 4, 2022

Submitted via email


Re: Do not send Haitians to detention at Guantánamo Bay or subject them to third-country arrangements


We, at the Haitian Bridge Alliance, and the undersigned 288 immigration, civil rights, human rights, and faith-based organizations, are deeply alarmed by a report that your National Security Council is considering sending and “holding” Haitian asylum seekers interdicted at sea by the United States to third countries or an offshore migrant detention center at the Guantánamo Bay military base in Cuba, a site associated equally with cruelty towards Haitians and more recently, lawlessness, torture, and executive overreach. We call on your administration to prioritize protections for Haitian nationals. This includes halting returns and expulsions to Haiti given the life-threatening conditions there. The administration must not under any circumstances send asylum seekers and migrants to the notorious Guantánamo Bay or other offshore detention locations. The United States should also immediately create swift, meaningful, and substantial safe pathways to protection for Haitians, and provide access to apply for asylum in the United States, without discrimination, and regardless of whether people travel by land, sea, or air in search of refuge.

Your administration should not add yet another chapter to the shameful U.S. history of mistreatment and racism toward Haitian people seeking protection, including those forced to take to the seas. In the 1990s, the U.S. government instituted mass immigration detention to target Haitians seeking refuge in the United States, disparately punishing Black asylum seekers. Successive U.S. administrations undertook sea interdictions and later pursued a policy of interception and indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay, subjecting tens of thousands of Haitians, including children, fleeing a brutal humanitarian and human rights crises, and blocking them from access to U.S. asylum, as well as human rights monitors and refugee lawyers. These actions undermined U.S. influence and moral authority, and left a further stain on the United States’ history and legacy in its relationship with Haiti. The Guantánamo Public Memory Project documented the conditions as the following:

[Haitians detained at Guantánamo] were being chased by attack dogs. It was hurricane season and they were left out there. Ferocious wind. And then there were ripped cots. The babies did not have cribs and stuff like that. As a matter of fact, later on when we asked, they gave us cardboard for the babies. I looked at the canned food they were given, expired food. People were getting sick and, you know, the hot sun. The conditions were really horrendous in terms of how a human being should live.

Neither should Haitians be sent to other offshore detention locations or subjected to third-country arrangements that violate refugee and human rights law. The Trump administration wielded third-country agreements as an asylum ban sending back a thousand people (mostly women and children) to Guatemala, and its Remain in Mexico policy returned tens of thousands to deadly harm and instances of summary removals from Mexico. The Biden administration should reject the prior administration’s approach, which made a travesty of the U.S. commitment to non-refoulement, subverted international law, and encouraged other countries to pursue similarly dangerous and inhumane asylum offshoring and detention agreements.

Today, Haitians face an unprecedented crisis in their home country. Armed groups with political ties are terrorizing Haiti’s capital with kidnappings and other violent crimes, which have spilled into cities across the country. From political upheaval and widespread insecurity, to a concerning resurgence of cholera, Haitian people are being forced to flee their home country in search of safety and protection. Some Haitian asylum seekers are taking to sea as a last resort given the dire conditions, as well as the impediments to obtaining visas to leave Haiti, and the extreme dangers of land routes to the U.S.-Mexico border.

There are concrete steps your administration can take to protect Haitian asylum seekers, uphold human rights, and implement your administration’s commitment in the executive order on advancing racial equity to “redress” “policies [that] perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color”:

  • Do not refoule, expel, return, or send any Haitians back to Haiti, including those interdicted at sea, and never again return people seeking asylum without refugee protection screening.  As you know, the U.N. Refugee Agency, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti recently called on states not to repatriate people to Haiti given the severe and dire humanitarian, health, and security crisis there. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk stressed, “In this context, it is clear that the systematic violations of rights in Haiti do not currently allow for the safe, dignified and sustainable return of Haitians to the country.” The Biden administration should take all available steps to end the use of Title 42, which UNHCR has repeatedly warned violates refugee law and returns people to their country of feared harm without asylum adjudications or screening, restore asylum processing at ports of entry, and ensure interdicted Haitians can disembark in the United States. Before any future returns of people by sea, protection screenings should include preliminary affirmative fear of return questions (rather than the deficient “shout” test), adequate interpretation, and access to full refugee screening.
  • Do not send Haitians to be detained at the infamous Guantánamo Bay. People seeking protection should not be sent to a location that has long been a symbol of the subversion of human rights, and that lacks access to human rights monitors and refugee lawyers. The Biden administration should not extend the human rights horrors at Guantánamo, and should permanently close down Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s Migrant Operations Center there and end all contract solicitations and active contracts for guards for the facility. Families, adults, and children seeking to escape harm or seek refuge should not be subjected to offshore detention that contravenes human rights law and undermines the administration’s steps to eliminate the use of family detention in the United States.
  • Disembark Haitians interdicted by the United States in the United States, as contemplated by U.S. law, with full access to asylum protection. In the 1996 revision of the Immigration and Nationality Act section 235(a)(1), Congress clearly confirmed authority, which your administration should use to bring people interdicted at sea to U.S. soil. Given significant barriers for Haitians to access counsel and interpreters in expedited removal, you should ensure no one is denied full removal proceedings under section 240 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Haitian families, adults and children who seek asylum in the United States should not be sent to county jails, immigration detention centers, or subjected to other punitive, discriminatory, or disparate treatment, and should instead shelter with family and friends in U.S. communities while awaiting asylum and immigration processing. 
  • Refrain from striking formal or informal agreements with third countries to detain and/or process people seeking asylum. Third country processing should never be your administration’s response to people seeking refuge. Time and again, the United States has turned to nations with far less resources to take on its refugees, externalizing its obligations towards asylum seekers under U.S. and international law. It is past time to end that practice once and for all and ensure that people seeking U.S. protection, including Haitians, can access the U.S. asylum system from U.S. soil, with full compliance with statutory and constitutional protections. 
  • Create swift, meaningful, and substantial safe pathways, which should never be linked to denial of access to asylum. The absence of safe pathways has long pushed people fleeing a country to embark on dangerous journeys, and we urge the Biden administration to take all steps it can to create safe pathways for people seeking to leave Haiti and come to the United States. Critical steps include: immediate implementation of Haitian Family Reunification Program, creating new safe routes for Haitians seeking safety to come to the United States, and leverage technology for interviews impacted by the current security situation in Haiti. The provision of safe pathways should never be linked to denial of access to asylum, as the Department of Homeland Security shamefully did with Venezuelan asylum seekers, a legally flawed approach that endangers lives and subverts refugee protection globally.  

It is past time for the United States, and the Biden administration, to pursue these rights-respecting actions, and end the pattern of discriminatory and disparate treatment inflicted on Haitians seeking U.S. protection. During your administration, Haitians have been met with summary push-backs at the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard. People have died and continue to die at sea while seeking protection at U.S. shores. Rather than protecting them, the United States further victimizes these individuals by returning them to danger. Disparate treatment of Haitians attempting to seek U.S. asylum at the border has continued. This past year, your administration spent millions to rapidly expel tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Haiti including pregnant women and newborn babies, shortly after committing significant human rights abuses against Haitians in Del Rio, Texas, in an effort to deter Haitians from coming to the U.S. border.

Despite your commitment to racial equity, your administration has continued and is poised to expand the discriminatory and anti-Black policies of the past. Your administration has the power to turn the page on these harmful and discriminatory policies. We urge you to do right by Haitian people seeking protection, whether by land or at sea, to live up to our humanitarian obligations, and build an equitable humanitarian protection system that welcomes those seeking refuge.


See Signatories Here

featured image: May 22, 2022, Mexico, Tijuana: “#EndTitle42” reads a small placard near a Haitian woman attending a memorial service for migrants who died on their way to the U.S. Photo by Aimee Melo via Getty Images.