IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.
EXCLUSIVE
Immigration

With a possible surge of Haitian migrants ahead, the Biden admin is weighing holding them in a third country or at Guantánamo

The U.S. has long had a temporary holding facility for migrants at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba separate from the prison for terrorist suspects.

The Biden administration is weighing options to respond to what could soon be a mass exodus of migrants from Haiti, including temporarily holding migrants in a third country or expanding capacity at an existing facility at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, according to two U.S. officials and an internal planning document reviewed by NBC News.

The White House National Security Council is asking the Department of Homeland Security what number of Haitian migrants would require the U.S. to designate a third country, known as a “lily pad,” to hold and process Haitian migrants who are intercepted at sea and what number would overwhelm a lily pad country and require Haitians to be taken to Guantánamo, according to the document.

For more than 30 years, Guantánamo Bay has had a Migrant Operations Center that houses migrants picked up by the Coast Guard in the Caribbean. It is not part of the prison for terrorist suspects. Plans are under consideration that would roughly double the capacity at the Migrant Operations Center to 400 beds, according to the document.

In late September, violent gangs seeking to overturn Haiti’s government staged a land blockade of the country’s main fuel supply point, blocking fuel from leaving the depot and thwarting the hopes of those seeking to leave the country by boat.

The Biden administration predicts that when the fuel is no longer blocked and migrants are able to buy gas to power boats, there could be a mass exodus of Haitians trying to make the dangerous journey to the U.S. by sea, the U.S. officials said.

In recent days, the National Security Council has hosted a series of meetings about the issue, involving the departments of Homeland Security, Defense and State. 

The Biden administration received bipartisan criticism for its handling of a flood of Haitian migrants in September 2021, which led to more than 12,000 of them massing under an international bridge in Del Rio, Texas. Most of the migrants, however, had left Haiti many years before to seek work in South and Central America, and they tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico land border as their economic opportunities began to dry up in countries like Brazil.

The Biden administration ramped up deportation flights to deal with the influx, but the flights have been halted since August.

A spokesperson for the NSC said: “The United States remains committed to supporting the people of Haiti. We recently delivered Haitian government-purchased security equipment, including tactical and armored vehicles and supplies, that will assist the Haitian National Police in their fight against criminal actors inciting violence.”

The spokesperson also said the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have staff members on the ground in Haiti responding to the country’s cholera outbreak. 

"The U.S. government always does contingency planning out of an abundance of caution, and for a wide range of potential scenarios. These contingencies for migration existed long before the Biden-Harris Administration," an NSC spokesperson said in a new statement after this article was published.

"We have not seen an increase in Haitian maritime migration, and no decisions have been made. In fact, the number of Haitians interdicted at sea has significantly decreased in recent months. The United States continues to coordinate with our international partners first and foremost to support the people of Haiti and address the security and humanitarian situation in the country."

A spokesperson said DHS “continues to closely monitor the situation in Haiti, and there are longstanding contingency plans ready in the event of a surge in maritime migration.”

“As we have repeatedly said, irregular maritime voyages in the Caribbean are always dangerous and very often deadly, and we urge individuals not to put their lives at risk.

“DHS components, including U.S. Border Patrol, Air and Marine Operations, and the United States Coast Guard, along with our federal partners, maintain a continual presence with air and sea assets in the Florida straits and in the Caribbean Sea, as part of a multi-layered approach to interdict migrants attempting to enter the U.S.,” the spokesperson added.