Part 4 of a report from southern Mexico.
Haitian National Nixon DeLeonne in Tapachula, Mexico, has abandoned plans to cross the American border because he knows the Americans are once again flying Haitians all the way back to Haiti. Photo by Todd Bensman.
TAPACHULA, Mexico — Out of public view, the Biden administration has ramped up daily ICE-Air deportation flights of Haitian border crossers to the capital of Port-au-Prince, the kind of operation that brought intense criticism from the Democratic Party’s progressive liberal wing when he briefly used it to disband a squalid Haitian migrant camp in Del Rio, Texas, last fall.
The flights petered out a month or so later. But now, though the White House has neither announced nor advertised having ordered it, long-haul ICE-Air deportation flights targeting Haitians are back with a vengeance.
The Biden administration’s quiet re-start in mid-December coincided with a significant new spike in Haitian apprehensions at the border that month, from 1,022 in November to 7,075 by month’s end, a public flight-tracking database and government apprehension data show. Meanwhile, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) interviews with Haitians deep in southern Mexico show the flights once again are having the same profound impact on decision-making as when they were used to end the Del Rio camp crisis.
“Please, tell Joe Biden: Stop! Stop it! Stop the deportations to Haiti!” one Haitian man implored directly into a CIS video camera during a recent visit to this southern Mexican city near the Guatemala border. “Talk to Joe Biden, please! Stop the deportations. Help us Haitians.”
Interviews with dozens of Haitian migrants in Tapachula during a week-long visit stand as a vivid testament to the power of deportation flights to suppress illegal immigration, a metaphorical nuclear option.
Many, like a Haitian woman who gave her name as Lisette who just arrived through Guatemala after four years of living in Chile, told CIS the new flights have changed their original life plans from illegally crossing the U.S. border to semi-permanent settlement in Mexico. They’ll stay in Mexico for years if necessary, or until Biden’s Department of Homeland Security once again ends the flight specter.
“It’s not possible to cross now. It’s too dangerous to enter like that,” Lisette said. “If you make it into the U.S. you don’t know how it’s going to go with immigration. That’s why we’re waiting here. For the moment, we’re trying to go legally in Mexico. We have an information group, the Haitian community here in Tapachula. Every day we’re monitoring it.”
Haitian national "Lisette" in Tapachula said she won't cross the U.S. border as originally planned now because the new deportation flights make that "too dangerous" and that all the Haitian migrants are monitoring the flights in a chat group. Photo by Todd Bensman.
Why Haitians and Why Flights Now?
The new round of flights has roots in the Del Rio migrant camp crisis of September 2021. Until then, Haitians were quickly becoming one of the most prolific border-crossers of the historic American mass migration crisis, which government apprehension data shows began in earnest after the November 2020 presidential election.
The number of monthly Border Patrol apprehensions of Haitians spiked from 97 in November 2020, to 5,904 in June 2021, and then to 17,638 in September. That was the month Haitians became nationally notorious because some 15,000 of them poured over the Texas border almost overnight and created the Del Rio, Texas, migrant camp crisis, a media-spotlighted political conflagration the Biden government would not tolerate.
To most quickly extinguish it, the Biden government ramped up ICE-Air deportation flights of the Texas Haitians all the way back to Port-au-Prince. Pro-illegal immigration advocates and White House progressives found the choice repugnant, and that choice worsened a rift with security-minded pragmatists who were eying a major political liability for the upcoming midterm national elections.
The flights, as I reported when they first began during the camp crisis, had a real impact that, not coincidentally, lasted as long as the flights. Before the aircraft were mostly called back in late October, the government had flown back some 8,500 Haitians, who used social media to warn those still en route what had happened.
While the planes were flying, scores fleeing back to Mexico told CIS that they could not accept even a marginal prospect of losing fortunes in smuggling fee money only to end up at square one.
Some Haitians found this prospective financial loss so loathsome that they revolted and destroyed the interiors of the first aircraft (photos of which CIS has reviewed). Others still in Texas receiving the news in online chat rooms seized control of several ICE buses that were taking them to airports. What happened for a while after that? The Haitians kept coming to Mexico by the thousands but kept their distance from the border, their U.S. border apprehension numbers plummeting by 95 percent.
But then the flights mostly ended along with media interest in Haitians.
This shows a sudden sharp spike of Haitian apprehensions in December coinciding with a Biden administration move to restart air repatriation flights to Haiti.
The drop in illegal crossings was temporary because the flights were. In December, the Biden DHS could not have missed that the number of apprehended Haitians was skyrocketing again, in what turned out to be a 600 percent increase by month’s end.
Had national news reporters at President Biden’s most recent press conference asked a single question about the border crisis, they might have learned the administration had just turned on the controversial Haitian deportation flights again.
Did these flights signal the triumph of more border-hawkish White House pragmatists over Biden’s progressive-left immigration advisers? We don’t know, but two key senior immigration advisers from the latter camp — Esther Olavarria and Tyler Moran — resigned just weeks after Biden ordered the flights resumed.
The Specter Returns
Indeed, the flights are hauling Haitians from Texas to their home country almost every day now, according to flight-tracking data for a number of known ICE-Air chartered jets that appear to have amped up the repatriation flights on or about December 13, 2021, for reasons the Biden administration has not advertised.
Take the ICE-chartered World Atlantic Airlines MD-83 plane named “Jackie”, which can carry 172 passengers. According to the Flightradar24 database, on December 13, the plane logged the first of what has become a continuous series of flights either from the McAllen or Laredo, Texas, airports to Port-au-Prince, 26 in all through to January 25. Other ICE-Air subcontractor aircraft are flying, too, though not all of them are known.
The ICE-contracted iAero Airways aircraft N627SW, for example, flew four flights in early November from Laredo to Port-au-Prince or Cap-Haitien, but then flew 11 from December 14 through January 20, a clear tempo increase. Another IAero Airways flight flew a first flight from Miami on January 18. Other chartered airlines are likely flying to Haiti as well, but DHS has not released data on its repatriation flights, nor could any public affairs announcements be found.
The anti-immigration-enforcement group Witness at the Border, which deplores air deportations as “death flights”, noted in a January 3 report that: “A deep declining trend in return flights to Haiti was reversed in December,” with an estimated 2,750 Haitians returned in just the last two weeks of that month.
Impact on Haitian Decisions to Cross
Even if the American public is unaware of them, these operations occupied the minds of Haitians in Tapachula during the week of January 13-21.
Haitian national Nixon Deleonne, a single unmarried man, typifies how the deportation flights are playing. He spent $2,500 in savings and borrowed money on smuggling to get from Brazil, where he’d been living for three years, to Tapachula. His eye was on the American dream and “a better life” than what Brazil could offer but now he keeps hearing about the deportation flights.
“If Jesus give me a chance to cross the border of the United States, I would thank God because after two years, four years, I can build my house. I can do something. Brazil is good but you can’t find the money to raise your family. The United States is the place everybody in the world wants to go there. It’s better than all of the countries. You have a good salary and good security.”
At the moment, the Mexican government is restricting freedom for migrants to move beyond Tapachula until they secure Mexican asylum, residence cards, or visas. Most use these to make a beeline for the U.S. border a three-day bus ride away. In December, after some 50,000 migrants backed up in Tapachula, the Mexican government relented and let them move forward with a new document called a QR Code visa, just to clear them out, as CIS has reported.
Deleonne got there too late for that. But even if he gets that QR Code visa break or his regular documents, he said he will not cross the American border because of the deportation risk he and all the Haitians in town talk about constantly.
The new plan?
“I’m going to see what they’re doing. If they continue to make some deportation, I’m not going to cross the border. If I hear they stop, I will try to get my chance. That’s what I’m thinking. I don’t want to go back. I don’t have any problem staying here for one year, two years, three years. In my mind, I say one of these days, I’m going to cross the border. That’s my destination, my objective, to one day cross the border.”