Exclusive: DHS tracked Haitian migration for months but failed to predict surge at the border

·9-min read

As multiple U.S. federal agencies continue to move thousands of Haitian migrants from a makeshift encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande River this week, Department of Homeland Security officials said Thursday that they were also “actively investigating” how approximately 15,000 Haitian migrants were able quickly make their way through Mexico to Del Rio, Texas, without being detected by U.S. intelligence.

On a background call with reporters Thursday, an official with the DHS said that the department has been “closely following the movement of migrants through the hemisphere.” Many of the current influx of Haitian migrants reportedly traveled to the U.S. from South America.

“We did not, however, have any intelligence that suggested we would be seeing the surge in numbers we saw over the past week,” the official said.

Migrants cross the Rio Grande River
Migrants crossing the Rio Grande River in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on Sunday. (Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Based on a number of internal government documents obtained by Yahoo News, it appears that the Biden administration has been tracking migration from Haiti to the U.S. since as early as March. But intelligence reports and situational assessments produced by a number of different agencies within the DHS repeatedly downplayed the likelihood of a surge in Haitian migrants headed for the U.S., even as conditions on the ground in Haiti continued to devolve.

On March 1, the DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis issued a report titled “Political Strife in Haiti Unlikely to Spur Migration.” The office is charged with gathering intelligence about emerging threats and circulating it to federal, state, local and tribal agencies and government entities.

The existence of this document, sources explained, shows that the DHS was concerned about and tracking the potential for mass Haitian migration.

Officials at the DHS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Haiti’s tense political environment will likely have a limited impact on migration over the next three months,” the March 1 report states. It was circulated among DHS leadership and marked “law enforcement sensitive.” The document, which was issued five months prior to the assassination of Haiti’s president and six months before a magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed thousands of Haitians and left many more homeless, warned that the country was “facing a constitutional crisis and unrest following delayed parliamentary elections and President Jovenal Moise’s controversial plan to reform Haiti’s constitution through a referendum.” However, the intelligence office predicted that “the current political strife is unlikely to significantly impact other existing migration push and pull factors.” 

Jovenel Moïse
Then-presidential candidate Jovenel Moïse in 2016. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

The report went on to cite economic instability and concerns for personal security as the primary drivers of migration from Haiti in recent years, while also citing “strong labor demand” in Latin American and the U.S. as additional “pull factors” for migrants.

“Existing push and pull factors will remain key drivers of migration from Haiti to the United States regardless of the outcome of the country’s political situation,” the March report concluded. This would prove to be an accurate prediction — most of the Haitian migrants who’ve crossed the Rio Grande into Del Rio, Texas, over the last week or so did not recently leave Haiti. Rather, they’ve reported living in South American countries like Chile and Brazil for years before attempting to make their way to the U.S.

Still, subsequent intelligence reports obtained by Yahoo News suggest that the DHS did not foresee a massive influx Haitian migrants coming from South America, even as the numbers of Haitians apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border began to spike in June, and continued to climb in July and August. Instead, documents produced by the intelligence arms of the U.S. Coast Guard and the CBP focused on whether the country’s political turmoil, exacerbated by the presidential assassination on July 7 and devastating earthquake one month later, would spike mass migration from the island. Again and again, the consensus was that a Haitian migrant crisis was not imminent.

Haitian migrants are pictured in a makeshift encampment where more than 12,000 people hoping to enter the United States await under the international bridge in Del Rio, Texas on September 21, 2021. (Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)
Haitian migrants are pictured in a makeshift encampment where more than 12,000 people hoping to enter the United States await under the international bridge in Del Rio, Texas on September 21, 2021. (Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

About a week after Moïse’s assassination, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made a public statement that seemed designed to prevent a possible wave of migration from the island. Mayorkas warned that anyone seeking to flee Haiti, or Cuba — which was also in the midst of historic nationwide protests — by boat would not be eligible for asylum in the U.S., even if they had a credible fear of persecution in their home country.

Mayorkas’s warning came around the same time as a situation report from the Coast Guard’s Maritime Intelligence Fusion Center, which noted a 7 percent increase in maritime migration by Haitians during the month of June. Despite this increase, the Coast Guard report predicted that Haitian migration to the U.S. by boat would decrease in the aftermath of the president’s assassination. “Haitian maritime mass migration is very unlikely in the near-term,” the report concluded.

On Aug. 18, just days after the devastating earthquake struck Haiti, CBP’s office of intelligence issued another report stating that “the earthquake is not likely to initiate a mass migration event from Haiti as the situation unfolds.” However, the document continued, “CBP assesses that current migration through the Southwest Border and Southeast maritime corridor will continue as Haitian migrants depart South America and the Bahamas seeking greater economic opportunities in the United States.”

United States Customs and Border Patrol agents
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents on horseback try to stop Haitian migrants from entering an encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande River. (Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images)

For months, officials in the Biden administration have assured the public they would rely on facts and data to inform policy and to track and mitigate threats before they blossom into a full-blown crisis. Senior DHS and CBP officials told Yahoo News that under the Biden administration there has been an emphasis on collecting hyper-specific data, but the Haiti migrant surge would appear to show the limits of how effectively that data is being utilized.

The White House did not return Yahoo News’ request for comment.

“Now we are looking in the right places, we are tracking the right data points,” said one DHS official involved in aspects of the response to the Haitian migrant surge. “But then what? We don’t use it? Or we don’t trust it? Or we don’t understand it? I don’t know. But we have the data and we are still caught off guard, it’s almost like we don’t know it’s happening, except we do.”

Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande
Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande to get food and water in Mexico. (Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images)

During Thursday’s background briefing, DHS officials touted the “tremendous progress” that had been made over the last 72 hours “in drawing down the population under the bridge” in Del Rio. As of Thursday morning, one official said, there were roughly 4,050 migrants at the encampment, a significant drop from the “high watermark days of almost 15,000” over the weekend.

An internal government report on the Haitian migrant surge circulated hours before the background call gave much higher numbers, however. As of 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, 16,000 migrants were awaiting processing after crossing the Rio Grande at the International Bridge in Del Rio, according to the “Sensitive But Unclassified, For Official Use Only” brief obtained by Yahoo News. The internal government report also notes that DHS has been busing Haitians from Del Rio to El Paso, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley and would be adding flights to Tucson, Ariz. The senior leadership brief does not say precisely how many migrants have been relocated from Del Rio.

The DHS and CBP did not respond to Yahoo News’ questions about the discrepancy in the number of migrants still located at the Del Rio encampment.

Haitian migrants wait in line to board a boat to navigate to the border with Panama in Necocli, Colombia, on September 23, 2021. (Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images)
Haitian migrants wait in line to board a boat to navigate to the border with Panama in Necocli, Colombia, on September 23, 2021. (Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images)

On the call with reporters, Homeland Security officials said more than 3,200 Haitian migrants had been moved from Del Rio to other Border Patrol sectors for processing, but declined to provide details on how many have been released into the country so far. As of Thursday, officials said that more than 1,400 people had been deported back to Haiti on 13 flights.

“If the numbers they gave you today are real, where did all those people go? It’s a shell game. We are just moving them around,” a source at DHS with knowledge of the Border Patrol response told Yahoo News.

Federal agencies are busing and flying the migrants to other sectors to reduce numbers, explained one Border Patrol source who requested anonymity and insisted the internal numbers as of Thursday morning still showed 16,000 Haitian migrants encamped in Del Rio.

“We are shuffling out 500 a day but it’s nowhere near 4,000,” the source said. By late last week, the situation in Del Rio was so dire and out of control, CBP activated its Special Operations Detachment units, teams based around the country tasked with responding to rapidly evolving crises. These groups were sent from around the country ”to stand up a security element,” the source at CBP told Yahoo News.

The Biden administration’s response to the surge of Haitian migrants at the border has prompted bipartisan backlash, with several congressional Democrats calling for the suspension of deportation flights to Haiti. On Thursday, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti resigned in protest over the “inhumane, counterproductive” mass expulsions of Haitian migrants to their home country, calling the administration’s policy approach to the country “deeply flawed.”

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