Feds fear collapse will spur migrant surge to South Florida coast…

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Feds fear collapse will spur migrant surge to South Florida coast…

When Haiti’s slow-motion crisis unfurled last week as gangs united to attack the country’s core institutions, White House officials turned to national security and intelligence agencies to answer a critical question: Would the potential collapse of Haiti’s government prompt a surge of desperate Haitians to take to the seas for South Florida’s shores?

U.S. officials monitoring online chatter, U.S. Coast Guard tracking and some intelligence collection found that a surge has not yet materialized. No signs have emerged of bottlenecks of new arrivals at Cap-Haïtien or Port-de-Paix, northern port cities that have most often been used as launch sites for ocean journeys. Interdictions across the Florida Straits and the Mona Passage — between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic — have remained steady.

“We have not seen any indications of a mass movement of people north, a tell that a mass migration by sea could take place,” a U.S. official said.

But officials who spoke with McClatchy on the condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. assessment fear that trend could rapidly change.

For now, violence around key roadways has frightened most civilians off the streets, paralyzing public transportation in and out of the capital. But gang leaders may soon determine they need to offer secure highway passage to buses in order to increase revenue from gang-imposed tolls, facilitating a potential rush to the exits, two senior administration officials told McClatchy.

Further escalating concerns is the neighboring Dominican Republic, which has been in an escalating border dispute with Haiti for months.

President Luis Abinader, who had been tightening the border before the crisis began, said this week that his country will not accept any Haitian refugees. Any further escalation of violence, if coupled with a crackdown on Haitians in the Dominican Republic, could trigger a wave of people taking to the treacherous Mona Passage toward Puerto Rico.

The United Nations Office for Migration plans to establish a monitoring post as of Friday to begin monitoring flows, a U.N. official told the Miami Herald.

“We are clear-eyed that economic, political and security instability are key drivers for migrants around the world. We are always monitoring trends and routes frequently used by migrants to try to address migration surges before they reach our southwest border,” a National Security Council official told McClatchy.

“We urge Haitians to seek out the many safe and lawful pathways available to migrate to the United States,” the official said.

Concerns over a surge in sea crossings — one of the most perilous paths an individual can take to migrate abroad – have persisted in the Biden administration ever since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse nearly three years ago.

Such a worrying surge was observed when, four months after Moise’s murder, a rickety wooden sailboat ferrying 63 Haitian migrants washed up in the Florida Keys — the first large group in more than two years. It was also the beginning of the largest maritime migration crisis from Haiti in almost two decades.

Various wooden sailboats in different stages of construction and repair line the bay on March 24, 2022, in Bodin on the outskirts of Port-de-Paix, Haiti.

Various wooden sailboats in different stages of construction and repair line the bay on March 24, 2022, in Bodin on the outskirts of Port-de-Paix, Haiti.

Thousands of migrants evaded Coast Guard patrols as they traveled the 600-mile stretch through the Florida Straits to South Florida. Other Haitians left the Dominican Republic for Puerto Rico. As in previous migration waves, the U.S. government responded by forcefully returning most migrants back to Haiti.

‘PEOPLE GET HURT’

Through Feb. 29, the Coast Guard had intercepted 41 undocumented Haitians in the waters near Puerto Rico and the Mona Passage since October, compared to 264 Haitians during the government’s fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2023. The Coast Guard 7th District, headquartered in Miami, reported in mid-February that it had repatriated 53 people back to Haiti during that same time period.

In March of last year, asked by McClatchy what he feared most about the deteriorating security situation in Haiti, President Joe Biden said he feared a massive loss of life among migrants at sea.

“People get hurt in mass migrations, and I worry about that,” Biden said.

Haitian voyages bound for Florida and Puerto Rico often turn deadly. In May 2022, 11 Haitian women drowned when their boat capsized near the U.S. territory. Since 2014, more than 800 people have died in the Caribbean on boat trips to the United States and Puerto Rico, according to the International Organization for Migration.

To counter a potential migration flow, the Biden administration in January 2023 included Haiti in a list of four countries whose nationals would be allowed to come to the United States legally as part of a two-year humanitarian program, so long as they had a financial sponsor in the U.S and passed a background check. Through January of this year, 138,000 Haitians had already arrived out of 144,000 approved to travel through the process, according to federal government data.

Since January 2023, Haitians are eligible for the President’s Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan initiative, which provides a lawful pathway for vetted Haitians with sponsors to come to the United States in a humane and orderly way,” the National Security Council official said. “Those who cross unlawfully are ineligible for this process and instead are subject to prompt removal, consistent with our protection obligations.”

But for those seeking to come legally or as part of the program, options remain limited.

Operations at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince are at a standstill, and flights from major U.S. carriers to the international airport in the capital are indefinitely canceled. The border with the neighboring Dominican Republic has also been tightened.

Biden’s immigration policy is already feeling the effects of the crisis. A deportation flight that was scheduled to fly from Miami to Port-au-Prince last Thursday never took off after the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in the capital came under heavy gunfire.

Since the gang assault began on Feb. 29, at least 10 police substations have been attacked and at least six police officers have been killed, according to human-rights activists. Another police substation was taken over by gangs overnight.

The United Nations said since the new escalation in violence, more than 15,000 people have been internally displaced. They were among more than 314,000 Haitians who had already been forced out by gangs, raising concerns that the next mass movement may be toward the country’s coastlines.

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