Confusion Reigns in Administration’s Response to ‘Del Rio’

Haitian envoy quits, officials make inconsistent statements, and White House numbers don’t add up

By Andrew R. Arthur on September 24, 2021

Del Rio, Texas, used to be known (if at all) as a sleepy outpost on the Southwest border. “Del Rio” is now shorthand for a border in chaos, as my colleague Todd Bensman has described in recent days. That’s due to a “perfect storm” of bad immigration policy and incompetent planning. The problem has only been made worse by the confusion coming out of the Biden administration.

As I reported in a September 23 post, the White House’s messaging has been “inconsistent” at best, and unhelpfully contradictory at worst.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas tried to stem the flood at the border by telling migrants seeking to enter illegally at Del Rio on September 21: “If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned. Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s life.” Most of those migrants are from Haiti, and by “returned” he meant returned to that country.

But then, on the same day, Vice President (and quasi-Border Czar) Kamala Harris appeared to justify those migrants’ illegal entry and encourage even more migrants to come, describing the Haitian situation as follows: “People want to stay home. They don't want to leave home. But they leave when they cannot satisfy their basic needs.”

DHS has apparently nonetheless removed about 2,000 of those migrants back to Haiti (although even that number is not clear, as I will explain below). That prompted Daniel Foote, U.S. special envoy to Haiti, to resign his post.

Foote asserted, in his September 22 resignation letter to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, that he would “not be associated with the United States [sic] inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti.”

The early days of any administration are usually associated with some amount of turnover among appointed officials.

Remember Trump’s DHS Secretary John Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis? Each was Senate confirmed, and all of them were gone in fairly short order (Mattis the last, by the end of December 2018, although Kelly served as White House chief of staff until that month).

That said, Foote was only appointed as envoy to Haiti on July 22. Nine weeks of service probably isn’t a record, but it must be close.

At a September 23 press conference, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained that there were “multiple senior level policy conversations on Haiti where all proposals, including those led by Special Envoy Foote, were fully considered in a rigorous policy process”. Foote lost and quit, but that still doesn’t explain what those “conversations” entailed.

Which brings me back to the returnees. During that September 23 presser, Psaki stated that since September 19, 12 repatriation flights have removed 1,401 Haitians, while 3,206 Haitians were moved to CBP custody or to other spots on the border for expulsion under Title 42 or to be placed into removal proceedings. She claimed that fewer than 5,000 were left in Del Rio.

The problem is that there were, according to Politico, some 15,000 migrants in the camp in Del Rio on the weekend of September 18 and 19. Psaki only accounted for, at most, 9,607 of them.

What happened to the other 5,000-plus? Quoting an unnamed “U.S. official”, NPR reported on September 23 that “Haitians have been freed on a ‘very, very large scale’ in recent days” (that official put the number “in the thousands”), all into the United States.

That will simply make “Del Rio” worse, as it will embolden foreign nationals to enter illegally so they can be released, too. But at least Psaki could have gotten what would appear to be rather exact figures (1,401, and 3,206) straight, and at least tried to have gotten them to add up.

But there’s more. At a September 24 press conference, Mayorkas asserted that some 8,000 migrants “voluntarily” went back to Mexico. That statement and Psaki’s means there were 17,000-plus migrants in Del Rio, more than published accounts, and those 8,000 “voluntary” returnees were more than Bensman (who was there) estimates returned.

I understand that the situation at the border is chaotic, but couldn’t somebody in the federal government have gotten something approximating an accurate count?

Complaining about bad immigration policies and their incompetent implementation is redolent of the old Woody Allen quip about the food being terrible and the portions too small. The administration’s confusion in dealing with “Del Rio”, however, reminds me more of the quote from the iconic Green Bay Packers’ coach, Vince Lombardi: “What the hell’s going on out here?”