(CN) — The Biden administration’s struggles with immigration continued this week as its efforts to continue expelling asylum-seeking families overshadowed its announcement that most undocumented people in the U.S. will not be targeted for deportation.
President Joe Biden took office promising to build a “fair and humane” immigration system and restore America’s reputation as a welcoming place for refugees and asylum applicants, which he said had been tarnished by the hardline tactics of his predecessor Donald Trump.
Republicans claim Biden has caused a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border by rolling out a welcome mat for all immigrants, but many are being removed as quickly as they arrive.
The administration is still enforcing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pandemic-related order known as Title 42, implemented last year by Trump, under which most immigrants are removed from U.S. soil without a chance to apply for asylum.
The government has used Title 42 as grounds to boot more than 937,000 people since October 2020, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
That number has grown significantly in the past two weeks as the Biden administration sent more than 50 planeloads of Haitians — about 5,000 in all — back to their home country, said Nina Raoul, co-founder of the New York-based aid group Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, on a press call Friday.
A federal judge recently ordered Homeland Security to stop Title 42 expulsions of immigrant families. Before that injunction took effect, DHS obtained a stay order Thursday from the D.C. Circuit of Appeals.
The move was widely condemned by immigrant advocates.
“The administration chose to further promulgate the Trump administration’s racist and xenophobic policies by appealing the case and then proceeding to expel thousands of Haitians from Del Rio, Texas,” said Tami Goodlette, director of litigation for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
“The Biden administration has lost its way and needs to remember its promises from the election,” she continued.
E.L. is one of thousands of Haitians who crossed the Rio Grande into Del Rio last month and gathered under a bridge connecting the U.S. and Mexico in hopes of applying for asylum.
Speaking through an interpreter on the press call Friday, E.L., identified only by her initials, said she arrived there with her children. They endured frigid nights with no blankets to cover them as they slept in the open atop a sheet.
DHS officials said they provided food, water and medical aid to the group. But E.L. noted she saw men who crossed back into Mexico to buy food for their wives and children were blocked from returning by lariat-wielding Border Patrol agents on horses.
DHS opened an investigation after photos and videos of the agents went viral and is expected to release its findings next week.
“Another horrifying sight I witnessed was seeing pregnant women who went into labor under the bridge,” E.L. said. “They were taken to hospitals, gave birth and were sent back to their location where they were staying under the bridge without further access to health care. That was very heartbreaking.”
By Sept. 23, DHS had cleared all the Haitians out from under the bridge. In addition to the 5,000 flown back to Haiti, DHS took more than 12,000 to immigration prisons. Others were released to reunite with family in the U.S., according to the Texas Tribune.
E.L. said she and her children were allowed to go free in the country only because one of her kids was very sick, in a process called humanitarian parole.
Guerline Jozef, executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, told reporters Friday the two weeks of humanitarian parole the government is giving Haitians is a joke because after that time period they can be deported. Also, they are not receiving work permits and are required to check in at Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices on a weekly basis, Jozef added.
Some of the Haitians arriving at the Southwest border left their home country after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake there in 2010 killed 250,000 people and left another 1.5 million homeless.
Many moved to Brazil and Chile and made their way to the U.S. after years of living in those countries, immigrant advocates say.
Raoul, with the New York aid group, said DHS is releasing some Haitians it has briefly held in detention centers with ankle monitors.
“This practice needs to stop,” she said. “It reminds us of slavery and there is no reason our brothers and sisters from Haiti, or anyone from any country, should be wearing them.”
Even as DHS continued its expulsion flights to Haiti this week, its secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday issued new enforcement guidelines and tried to present a softer side of Biden’s immigration policies.
He declared the vast majority of the estimated 11 million paperless immigrants in the U.S. will not be targeted for deportation.
“We are guided by the knowledge that there are individuals in our country who have been here for generations and contributed to our country’s well-being, including those who have been on the frontline in the battle against COVID, lead congregations of faith and teach our children,” Mayorkas said in a statement.
Immigrants considered national security and public safety threats will continue to be prioritized for deportation, Mayorkas said, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement will make individualized assessments, accounting for mitigating factors such as how long they have lived in the U.S., whether they suffer from mental illness that contributed to their crimes and whether they are their families’ breadwinners.
Under the new guidelines, people who illegally entered the country after Nov. 1, 2020, will also be deemed border security threats and deportation priorities.
Yet Mayorkas emphasized DHS will not assist vengeful employers and landlords who call ICE to try to get people deported after they speak out about unsafe working conditions, wage theft or inflated rent.
The changes come partly in response to complaints from ICE officers that their managers, following Biden’s previous enforcement policies, denied their requests to take dangerous immigrants, including convicted child molesters, into custody.
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