WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is facing blowback from immigrant rights advocates after Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday that Haitians and Cubans fleeing violent political crises in their countries by boat would not be allowed to enter the U.S., even if they established a credible claim for asylum.
Instead, Mayorkas said, those with credible claims will be relocated to third countries for resettlement.
“The time is never right to attempt migration by sea,” Mayorkas said at a news conference. “Allow me to be clear: If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States.”
Many immigrant rights advocates responded Wednesday by calling on the administration to rethink its position following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and some of the largest Cuban street protests in decades.
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“This shameful message from the U.S. government to offshore its responsibilities for refugee protection is a horrible turning away from the administration’s promised commitment to human rights and racial justice,” said Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA.
Mayorkas himself immigrated to the U.S. as a child when his family fled Cuba, an experience he pulled from during his testimony before Congress as he sought confirmation as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
“It is disappointing to see Secretary Mayorkas, himself the son of Cuban refugees, attempting to foreclose that right for Cuban and Haitian nationals when they most need it,” said Efrèn Olivares, deputy legal director for immigrant justice at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Under international and U.S. law, asylum-seekers are allowed to make claims no matter how they enter the country.
But the U.S. has a history of interdicting and turning back Cuban and Haitian migrants attempting to come to the U.S. by boat. The policy was heavily criticized in the 1990s when thousands of Haitian immigrants were detained by the U.S. in Guantánamo Bay.
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In 2000, Elian Gonzales, a young Cuban boy, became the center of a flashpoint over the U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba when he was found by fishermen floating in a raft and handed over to the U.S. Coast Guard. He was living with his mother in Florida when immigration agents stormed into his home and returned him to Cuba to live with his father.
DHS referred questions about which countries asylum-seekers would be referred to for resettlement to the State Department. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A DHS spokesperson said migrants who are interdicted in the Caribbean Sea and “who are not found to have a credible fear following this screening are repatriated to their country of origin, country of departure or last habitual residence,” while those who are found to have a credible fear, the first step in establishing an asylum claim, are “referred to a third country for resettlement.”
Mayorkas said that so far there has not been a noticeable uptick in the number of immigrants fleeing Cuba and Haiti for the U.S.