DHS Returns 116 Chinese Nationals, but Then Allows Deported Cameroonians Back In

A president in a tough reelection fight wants to have it both ways — will voters let him?

By Andrew R. Arthur on July 9, 2024

On July 2, DHS issued a press release announcing it had “conducted a removal flight to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of Chinese nationals”. Less heralded, however, was a July 1 report in the Washington Free Beacon that the department has also been quietly flying Cameroonians — who were deported between 2019 and 2021 after their asylum claims were denied — back into the country. Plainly President Biden is attempting to have it both ways, first by exhibiting a newfound toughness while at the same time skirting the executive branch’s limited powers and ignoring Congress’ immigration restrictions.

“DHS Conducts Removal Flight to China”. The press release is headlined “DHS Conducts Removal Flight to China”, and it explains:

This weekend, [DHS], through [ICE], conducted a removal flight to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of Chinese nationals. This was the first large charter flight since 2018 and was conducted in close coordination with the National Immigration Administration of the PRC. DHS continues to work with the PRC’s Ministry of Public Security and National Immigration Administration on additional removal flights.

Unexplained in that release is just how many Chinese nationals were removed. A Boeing 737-800 can accommodate somewhere between 160 and 190 passengers, whereas an Airbus A320 — which is ideally suited for long-haul routes — can seat between 140 and 170.

Regardless, these deportees would have had plenty of room to move around, as AP reports that this flight carried 116 Chinese nationals back home.

Compare that figure to the 31,000-plus Chinese nationals Border Patrol agents apprehended at the Southwest border in the first eight months of FY 2024, already a record that shattered CBP’s previous yearly high, set in FY 2023 (more than 24,000).

To put that FY 2024 total into context, in all of FY 2021, agents stopped just 323 illegal entrants from the PRC, though to be fair that latter total was low by prior annual averages.

In the 14-year period between FY 2007 and FY 2020, PRC Southwest border apprehensions ranged from a low of just over 700 in FY 2008 (in the depths of the “Great Recession”) to a high of 2,320 in FY 2016. Just looking at that FY 2016 figure tells you, however, that DHS has never seen a Chinese migrant surge at the Southwest border like the current one.

“Close Coordination”, “Recalcitrant Countries”, and Section 243(d) of the INA. Meaning no offense to the gentlemen who make up the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Politburo Standing Committee — the guys who call the shots in Beijing — the PRC has no inclination to assist DHS in deporting Chinese who have been ordered removed from the United States.

That means that the Biden administration either had to muscle them into accepting these 116 returnees, or alternatively offered PRC leaders some sort of incentive to acquiesce.

I should note, by the way, that the foregoing is a purely practical — not legal — statement. International law requires every country to accept the return of its expelled nationals. The problem is many of them don’t want to.

Such polities are referred to as “recalcitrant countries”, and China has been on that list for my entire 32-year career in immigration.

The good news is that Congress, in section 243(d) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), provided DHS a tool to use to force compliance with that international-return principle (which is generally referred to as “readmission”).

Section 243(d) is captioned “Discontinuing granting visas to nationals of country denying or delaying accepting alien”, and it states:

On being notified by the [DHS secretary] that the government of a foreign country denies or unreasonably delays accepting an alien who is a citizen, subject, national, or resident of that country after the [DHS secretary] asks whether the government will accept the alien under this section, the Secretary of State shall order consular officers in that foreign country to discontinue granting immigrant visas or nonimmigrant visas, or both, to citizens, subjects, nationals, and residents of that country until the [DHS secretary] notifies the Secretary that the country has accepted the alien.

If that sounds like a straightforward process, it should be, though the executive branch over succeeding administrations has failed to use it as effectively as it should have.

President Trump was likely the biggest proponent of that 243(d) power, and 10 days after taking office, he issued Executive Order (EO) 13768, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States”, which (among other things) directed the secretaries of State and Homeland Security to “cooperate to effectively implement the sanctions”.

In response, the State Department imposed limited sanctions on certain nonimmigrant visas from countries like Cambodia, Sierra Leone, and Pakistan, but it never dropped the hammer on the PRC.

Since I am being fair, limiting access to tourist visas for government officials from Burundi (also on the list) is a lot easier — and less painful — than say shutting down the student visa office at the U.S. Consulate Shanghai.

According to Voice of America, the State Department issued 289,526 nonimmigrant student visas to Chinese nationals in FY 2023, which has created a constituency among U.S. institutions of higher learning to ensure that this flow continues. Most pay full tuition, and the schools want the estimated $15 billion in revenue those students provide.

That said, the mere threat of shuttering the consulates to Chinese students for a limited period would likely be enough to force Beijing to start issuing DHS more travel documents for the PRC nationals the department seeks to remove.

The Biden administration has not revealed how it managed to convince the Chinese government to accept the return of these 116 deportees — perhaps the CCP simply wants to help out the incumbent in an election year, or maybe Secretary of State Antony Blinken started making 243(d) or tariff threats — but plainly a planeload of removals is insufficient to deal with the Chinese surge at the Southwest border.

That said, these returns will likely have some practical effect. The NBC affiliate in San Diego — where most Chinese nationals enter — reports the average smuggling fee from the country runs somewhere between $40,000 to $60,000. From personal experience I can tell you that most of those migrants borrow the money from relatives and neighbors back home, with a promise to pay it back with interest.

As the likelihood that would-be migrants will be deported increases, their willingness to go deep into debt goes down. Perhaps the smugglers will respond by lowering their fees, but that’s doubtful. Expect at least a short-term decline in PRC apprehensions.

That said, these deportations are largely a political act, intended to show that President Biden has heard voters’ concerns about the border and is responding by removing PRC migrants.

That’s why the press release asserts “DHS enforces our immigration laws and delivers tough consequences for those who do not have a lawful basis to remain, consistent with international obligations” — an almost laughable assertion for the increasing number of Americans who are paying attention to the border.

“Biden Admin Flying Migrants Deported by Trump Back Into the US”. Which brings me to the Free Beacon article, headlined: “Biden Admin Flying Migrants Deported by Trump Back Into the US”.

It reveals that at least some of the 80 to 90 Cameroonian nationals who were deported between 2019 and 2021 — most logically under the Trump administration — are now “arriving back in the United States under a program with little precedent”.

That’s an understatement, because there is no mechanism in current law permitting DHS to allow aliens who have been removed pursuant to lawful orders to return — though not for want of trying on the part of the Biden White House.

Almost immediately after he took office, the president sent a proposal called the “U.S. Citizenship Act”, H.R. 1177, to Capitol Hill. In addition to creating a massive amnesty for aliens unlawfully here, the bill also would have provided a “waiver” for certain aliens removed under the Trump administration that would have allowed them to return.

Even under the Democratic-party controlled 117th Congress, that bill went nowhere (it never even made it to a markup, let alone out of committee), but as these Cameroonian returns reveal, that apparently hasn’t deterred the administration’s efforts to implement the plan itself, albeit on a limited basis.

Why, exactly, is DHS allowing those deported aliens to return? The Free Beacon explains:

The program, which has not been announced to the public, appears to be a response to a February 2022 Human Rights Watch report about dozens of Cameroonians deported between 2019 and 2021 and then allegedly mistreated by their government. An estimated 80 to 90 Cameroonians were deported during that period of time.

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The official rationale for the program, according to internal memos reviewed by the Free Beacon, is to avoid a "potential lawsuit." There is pending litigation in New York over documents related to alleged abuse of Cameroonian migrants, but no court has ordered their return.

As a former DOJ attorney, I can assure you that “litigation risk” guides any number of immigration-policy decisions, but absent evidence that these aliens were denied their due process rights — and nothing suggests they were — they would have a tough row to hoe in convincing even the most sympathetic federal judge to order DHS to return them.

As for the harm that they have suffered at the hands of their government (which I deplore in any context) there are any number of alternative avenues for protection they could — and should — access in lieu of returning to the United States.

With the exception of Nigeria, every country neighboring Cameroon is a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, including Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, as is every country on the West African coast (Cameroon sits on the South Atlantic Ocean), most notably Ghana.

Logically, if those aliens are fleeing persecution, they would go to the first country they can get to — not the one that best meets their personal and economic needs.

At this point, according to the Free Beacon, at least four deported aliens have been returned here, though up to 28 “will eventually be brought back to the United States”. If that’s true, it will send yet another signal to the world that this country is not serious about either its sovereignty or its immigration laws, which will just encourage even more illegal migration.

Kudos, and Caveats. Kudos to the administration for returning that handful of Chinese nationals, but even if those deportations have some practical effect, this is a largely political act — at least until DHS can deter tens of thousands of other Chinese migrants from entering illegally.

I’d say DHS’s deportation of 116 Chinese nationals is a watershed moment in the Biden administration’s otherwise dismissive attitude toward the immigration laws, but given that it’s also allowing previously removed Cameroonians to reenter without statutory authority, it’s likely just more of the same. A president in a tough reelection fight wants to have it both ways — the question is whether voters will let him.