Constant vigilance and cooperation with Mexico made the difference.
Alejandro Mayorkas likes to say that our border isn’t open.
This line rang particularly hollow on Monday when he said it in close proximity to a migrant camp where people were coming and going freely across the Rio Grande and had to take tickets to wait to get formally apprehended by U.S. authorities.
It’s one thing to say the border isn’t open, it’s another to implement the policies and do the work to keep it under control.
The Biden team tells the story that it is constantly undone by circumstances at the border — “seasonality” creating a surge last spring, climate change hurting agriculture in the Northern Triangle, the coup in Haiti — but there’s a reason that scene at the Del Rio bridge happened on Biden’s watch and not his predecessor’s.
The Trump team was aware of the potential of a surge of Haitian migrants running out of control and made it a priority to keep it from happening.
In general, the focus was on “putting out even a small little spark before it became a fire,” explains a former administration official. “And that’s how it happened, that you never saw any one at any time. You never had a single situation in the entire pandemic where a facility was even at capacity, let alone over capacity.”
At the border, we hear a lot about two categories of migrants: Mexicans (who can be returned home relatively easily) and “other than Mexican” (who are much more difficult to return almost entirely because of our senseless rules). But there was another category that administration officials referred to as “extra continental countries,” such as Haiti.
Dealing with these migrants was tricky because they couldn’t be returned to Mexico or a Northern Triangle country. Haitians don’t naturally fit in culturally in these places. Mexico can be convinced to take Guatemalans, and Guatemala can be convinced to take Salvadorans, but Haitians are a different story.
They don’t speak Spanish, rather Haitian Creole or French, and the Spanish-speaking countries worry about assimilating them.
“Mexico doesn’t take Chinese deportees — to choose a very obvious example — but there’s no legal reason why they couldn’t,” says the former administration official. “They just don’t. And so when you’re trying to find solutions for Haitian migrants, the only available option is really to send them back to Haiti.”
Given the truly awful conditions in Haiti and the fact that tens of thousands of Haitians had already left home for countries in South America, the administration recognized that there was an enormous pent-up demand to come to the United States, and once a flow got started it could be hard to stanch.
One of the lessons of the border crisis of 2019 was that if people are getting through, they spread the word to other would-be migrants, and it creates an incentive for more migrants to try to come. The number of migrants successfully getting into the United States doesn’t have to be high for this dynamic to take hold.
“If they release one single Haitian,” former acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan explains of Biden’s situation now, “one family, that family is calling and it’s going to continue to drive more Haitians coming.”
The Trump team focused on stopping a surge before it happened.
During the beginning of the pandemic, right around the time of the implementation of Title 42, the public-health measure used to expel migrants, the White House began leading a morning call among administration officials to monitor the number of migrants coming from various places and make sure that they were removed from the United States expeditiously.
They didn’t want overcrowding at any border facilities for public-health reasons, and they didn’t want any backups that would potentially overtop the system somewhere and encourage more people to come.
With most migrants there might be a few options of where they could be returned. With Haitian migrants, there was only one — Haiti.
This meant constant negotiations with the Haitian government, sometimes over each flight and how many people would be on it.
The former administration official recalls, “At this point in time in particular, Haiti was being really difficult about the flights.” Haitian officials might balk at approving a flight manifest, or try to negotiate down the number of people on a flight.
“I was personally on phone calls on a regular basis where the Department of State was on those phone calls and they were heavily engaged with the Haitian government on an ongoing basis,” says Morgan. “Obviously, ICE and CBP provided data and information, et cetera. But it really was that diplomatic pressure that was put on Haiti that they were going to accept their own citizens who illegally entered the United States.”
Another important piece was cooperation from Mexico. Todd Bensman of the Center for Immigration Studies reports that Haitian migrants have told him that while they were waiting for papers in Mexico, suddenly Mexican officials told them they could proceed north. Certainly, if Mexico hadn’t allowed the migrants to move through its territory, Del Rio never would have happened.
Trump was willing to use sticks, and not just carrots, to ensure cooperation from Mexico and Northern Triangle countries.
Morgan cites the importance of Trump’s “commitment that if Mexico didn’t step up he was going to take very specific actions on tariffs. The same thing with the Northern Triangle countries where relief and assistance was temporarily removed until they stood up and did what they needed to do to address this as a regional crisis.”
By last year, the former administration official says, “the relationship we had with Mexico was in a very solid place.” The Mexicans had initially been skeptical of the Trump approach but changed their view when it began to show results. “They saw,” he adds, “that suddenly their border towns weren’t overwhelmed. Suddenly their immigration services weren’t overwhelmed.” So the Trump team and its Mexican counterparts had, he continues, “this professional understanding that a little bit of preventative work today would prevent a much bigger problem tomorrow.”
Morgan points out that caravans that gathered to our south in 2020 didn’t go through. The Mexicans, Morgan says, “increased their southern border enforcement between them and Guatemala. So, Guatemala stepped up. A lot of the caravans were stopped in Guatemala before they even reached the Guatemala–Mexico border. And those that got through Guatemala, Mexican officials stopped.”
Finally, Trump officials were keenly attuned to intelligence about who might be coming from where.
“I received briefings and intelligence when a small group of the illegal aliens, of immigrants, were forming anywhere, whether that was Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico,” recalls Morgan. “We had sources, we were getting intelligence, and I was briefed. Any single time even a small caravan was starting.”
“So there’s no doubt in my mind,” he says of Biden officials and the current surge, “that they had information and intelligence about this and they ignored it.”
It all adds up to the Biden administration’s constantly having to say, against all evidence, that a porous border is closed.