Where Have All the Haitians Gone?

The drop in Haitian border arrests is a study in the effectiveness of immigration enforcement

By Andrew R. Arthur on November 23, 2021

In a November 17 post, I analyzed CBP’s statistics on Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southwest border in October. While apprehensions fell last month, some decline is expected in illegal entries as the fall goes on, and historically they have fallen from May through January (they usually pick up again in February). October’s numbers were still bad, however, as I explained, but there is an interesting fact I did not discuss: The number of illegal Haitian migrants, while still high, plummeted. Why?

Haitians at the Border: A New Phenomenon

The illicit entry of Haitian nationals across the Southwest border is a relatively new phenomenon. Between FY 2007 and FY 2018, just 384 Haitian nationals – total – were apprehended by Border Patrol there. Their numbers swelled during the “border emergency” in FY 2019, to 2,046, and even at the height of Covid-19 border shutdowns, they more than doubled year-over-year to 4,395 in FY 2020.

Traditionally, Haitian migrants hoping to make it to the United States illegally have travelled by sea. The 1980 “Mariel boatlift” is usually thought of in terms of Cuban migration – and 125,000 Cuban “Marielitos” did arrive then – but approximately 25,000 Haitian migrants also took advantage of the then-Carter administration’s lax entry rules.

An additional 25,000 Haitians came by boat in 1994, before the Clinton administration changed its own rules to put a stop to their entry.

Not Coming from Haiti

So, why are so many Haitians coming by land now? As the Wall Street Journal explained in its reporting on a massive influx of Haitians at Del Rio, Texas in September, “the overwhelming majority” of Haitians there had left Haiti following a 2010 earthquake in the country, “moving to South American countries like Chile and Brazil that had lenient immigration rules.”

This was confirmed by my colleague Todd Bensman in September.

He reported on large numbers of Haitians he has encountered throughout Central America and on both sides of the U.S. border who had “been living comfortable lives of relative prosperity and security – for three to six years – in Chile and Brazil and only decided to come now because Trump’s tougher policies had been replaced by Biden’s lenient policies.”

In fact, he explained that he had not met a Haitian migrant who hadn’t resided in those two countries “in more than two years of interviewing Haitians from Panama to Texas”.

Repatriation Flights Followed by 95% Drop in Arrests

These facts make the number of Haitian nationals who were apprehended by Border Patrol at the Southwest border more exceptional. From almost 17,600 in September, total Haitian apprehensions there fell almost 95 percent, to just 901, in October.

There are likely any number of reasons for the decline, but the most logical is the fact that the Biden administration flew approximately 8,500 Haitians who were apprehended in Del Rio back to Haiti – a country, as noted, most had not been to in years. They were expelled under pandemic-related orders issued by the CDC under Title 42 of the U.S. Code.

On September 20, Bensman explained that the first repatriation flights had sent Haitian migrants who were then still on the other side of the border back into the Mexican interior.

He reported that they were headed to Tapachula – the site of Mexico’s largest immigration detention center – to “wait out Biden’s interest in repatriation flights, then try crossing again when that program ends.” There are so many Haitian migrants in that city that the government of Haiti has set up a consulate there “in a bid to help manage migration”.

Enforcement Works – But Only if There Is Enforcement

What the curious case of the missing illegal Haitian migrants – the ones who did not enter illegally in October – shows is that border enforcement works.

It is questionable, at best, that any of the Haitian migrants who had resettled in Brazil and Chile had valid U.S. asylum claims. But the ones who had entered illegally believed that it was enough to just get into the United States, at which point their removal would be unlikely. When the odds of getting in dropped, and the odds of being returned to Haiti rose, they decided not to come.

It is not clear whether such efforts will continue, because President Biden caught heat for repatriation flights almost immediately. On September 24, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, sent the president a letter demanding that they be halted. And, as I reported in September, the flights prompted Daniel Foote, U.S. special envoy to Haiti, to resign his post.

Bensman’s reporting suggests that illegal Haitian migrants will start coming again as soon as they think that they will be able to stay, and such beliefs are spreading anew.

Reuters reported on November 18 that a caravan of 3,000 migrants – mostly from Haiti and Central America – has set out from Tapachula headed to the U.S. border. It follows a separate caravan that had set out from there in October. That one also began with 3,000 migrants but had been whittled down to 700 by the time it got to the state of Veracruz (hundreds of miles from the U.S. border), according to Reuters.

Politically, however, Biden can’t afford many more scenes like the ones that played out in Del Rio in September. That is likely why, as Bensman reported on November 22, CBP is paroling in migrants through Reynosa, Mexico, many of whom had previously been expelled under Title 42. That is much more orderly, even though it is plainly just a stopgap measure.

In any event, the Haitian migrants who were not apprehended in October because they did not try to enter illegally – fearing expulsion to a country that they had not been to in years – show that when the border is secured, aliens don’t come. Illegal immigration is not a given; it is the product of bad policies and non-enforcement. There have been plenty of each in the current administration.