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Turmoil in Haiti hasn't yet led to spike in migrants trying to reach U.S. shores, officials say

Americans in Haiti face dangerous journey home
Americans in Haiti face dangerous journey to get home 01:54

Despite the recent increase in violence and political turmoil in Haiti, the U.S. has not yet seen a spike in maritime migration in the Caribbean Sea that would trigger longstanding contingency plans that include housing migrants at Guantanamo Bay, two U.S. officials tell CBS News.

In recent weeks, a new wave of gang violence and unrest has shaken parts of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Heavily armed gang members have stormed prisons and police stations in the capital of Port-au-Prince.

The violence prompted the country's prime minister to flee to Puerto Rico and later announce he would step down once a transitional government is organized. It has also fueled a humanitarian crisis, displacing thousands of Haitians. 

A man sets a tire on fire during a demonstration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 12, 2024.
A man sets a tire on fire during a demonstration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 12, 2024. Guerinault Louis/Anadolu via Getty Images

For decades, the U.S. government has had contingency plans to respond to mass migration events in the Caribbean Sea, particularly near the Florida Straits. Those plans would include housing migrants at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, according to the U.S. officials, who requested anonymity to discuss government planning. 

The U.S. has leased the land for the naval base at the southeast end of the island of Cuba since 1903. The base includes a center where U.S. officials have screened some asylum-seekers for years. That area is separate from Guantanamo Bay's detention center, the post-9/11 military prison where the U.S. still holds several dozen terrorism suspects.

One of the U.S. officials said the area in Guantanamo Bay has been surveyed and could be used to set up additional structures, such as tents, to house migrants in the event of an influx in boat arrivals.

"The fact that we are always considering options does not mean we will take action immediately, or at all," a National Security Council spokesperson told CBS News.

The U.S. policy at this time, as has been the case for decades, is to repatriate most migrants intercepted at sea and block them from setting foot on American shores. Only a few migrants are ever screened by U.S. asylum officers after being interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard, which has continued repatriations to Haiti. Even those taken to Guantanamo Bay who prove they are fleeing persecution are often referred for resettlement in other countries under secretive agreements. 

Just last week, the Coast Guard repatriated 65 Haitians to their home country. So far in fiscal year 2024, which started in October, the Coast Guard has carried out 118 repatriations to Haiti, according to agency data. In fiscal years 2023 and 2022, the Coast Guard repatriated 1,800 and 2,732 migrants to Haiti, respectively.

An abandoned vessel on a beach on a deserted island is seen during a U.S. Coast Guard reconnaissance flight on April 22, 2022, over the Florida Straits and the Bahamas.
An abandoned vessel on a beach on a deserted island is seen during a U.S. Coast Guard reconnaissance flight on April 22, 2022, over the Florida Straits and the Bahamas. Jose A. Iglesias/El Nuevo Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Still, U.S. officials remain concerned about a sharp increase in Haitians taking to the sea, given the operational and humanitarian challenges that it could fuel. They have repeatedly underscored the often-deadly dangers of a seaborne journey. U.S. officials warned that screening facilities at Guantanamo could be overwhelmed if detentions exceed 1,000 in a day, given limited infrastructure and resources inside the naval base.

Last year, the U.S. enacted rules disqualifying Haitians and Cubans caught at sea from a Biden administration program that allows migrants from four countries, including Cuba and Haiti, to fly into the country if they have American sponsors.

"At this time, irregular migration flows through the Caribbean remain low. All irregular migration journeys, especially maritime routes, are extremely dangerous, unforgiving, and often results in loss of life. Anyone desiring to come to the United States must do so through safe, orderly, and lawful pathways," said Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Erin Heeter.

One of the reasons a maritime influx has not materialized, at least yet, could be because there are few or no commercial options to depart Haiti safely at this time, including for Americans.

The State Department recently sent security alerts to U.S. citizens in Haiti. U.S. citizens seeking help leaving the crisis-stricken country have been asked to fill out an intake form that asks them to indicate whether they plan to leave on their own or if they need assistance. It also asks if they need a loan from the U.S. government to buy a commercial ticket or help with a U.S. passport or visa for a spouse or minor child.

On Sunday, a U.S. government chartered aircraft departed from Cap-Haitien with more than 30 American citizens, the State Department said.

Margaret Brennan and Camilla Schick contributed reporting.

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