Immigration officials announced plans this week to resume deporting Haitian nationals who lack legal status in the United States as more of them arrive at the California-Mexico border.
Most Haitians were protected from deportation after that country’s devastating earthquake in January 2010. But on Thursday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Haitians will be subject to the same deportation rules as most other immigrants.
In a statement, Johnson said "the situation in Haiti has improved sufficiently to permit the U.S. government to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis, consistent with the practice for nationals from other nations."
The announcement has particular impact in Southern California. Since last fall, thousands of Haitians have arrived at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña told Congress that on a recent trip to Central America, government officials told her that 40,000 Haitians were on their way to the U.S. and called it an "emergency situation" on California's border, according to the Associated Press.
Federal officials said many are coming from economically troubled Brazil, where they had sought work. Others are seeking asylum.
Until now, the only Haitians being deported since the earthquake were those convicted of serious criminal offenses or considered a national security threat. These limited deportations resumed in 2011, but most Haitians remained protected.
The Homeland Security decision sends a double message, said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist and immigration expert at University of California, Irvine.
First, he said, it tells would-be Haitian migrants that they will not receive special treatment. Second, the Obama administration is sending a political message in a critical election year, in which immigration has been a flash point.
“They don’t want to send a signal that the U.S. border is out of control, or uncontrolled," DeSipio said.
On Thursday, officials said those whose asylum claims hold up will be allowed to stay and pursue their cases. They also said the decision will not affect Haitians who already have what’s called Temporary Protected Status, a special status that allows immigrants who have sought refuge from a crisis live and work in the U.S. legally on a temporary basis.
Haitians who have Temporary Protected Status recently had the benefit extended through July 22, 2017. But others who lack legal status will need to leave the country.
KPCC's calls to Haitian organizations were not returned late Friday.