Homeland Security is holding some 41,000 illegal immigrants in detention right now, the department said Wednesday, as agents struggle to get control of a new surge across the border — including a wave of Haitian migrants that is testing the limits of immigration policy.
Usually the government only contracts for about 34,000 detention beds, so surpassing 40,000 is a staggering number and signals the difficulties immigration agents are facing at the border as Central American children and families, and now Haitians, try to gain a foothold.
Secretary Jeh Johnson said he’s asked for even more bed space, saying that holding onto illegal immigrants, rather than catching and releasing them, makes it more likely they can quickly be deported.
“We must enforce the immigration laws consistent with our priorities,” he said. “Those who attempt to enter our country illegally must know that, consistent with our laws and our values, we must and we will send you back.”
Mr. Johnson also said deportation flights back to Haiti have resumed in full. They had been largely put on hold since the 2010 earthquake that devastated that country. Flights resumed earlier this fall, only to be suspended again after Hurricane Matthew.
Haitians who fled that county to South America after the earthquake have suddenly begun to flow north, hoping to get into the U.S., in recent months.
They’re arriving at a rate of about 3,000 a month, according to an internal Homeland Security intelligence bulletin that said lax U.S. enforcement is encouraging them to make the trip.
Hundreds had massed at border crossings in California, where they waited in line to demand asylum. When that became crowded, Haitians started testing border crossings further east, the intelligence analysts said.
Tens of thousands of Haitians who went to live in Brazil and Chile after the earthquake are now eyeing the journey, border officials predicted. They pay thousands of dollars to smuggling networks to be shepherded north, with varying degrees of cooperation from countries along the way.
In one example, analysts said, Mexican officials grant the migrants passes for transit that are just long enough to let the migrants get from southern Mexico to the northern border with the U.S.
Costa Rica also issues a 25-day permit, which gives them easier access to public transportation to get across that country.
The intelligence analysis said a stronger show of force by U.S. officials vowing to deport Haitians could discourage new migrants from attempting the journey.
Mr. Johnson appears to have taken that advice in ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to kick-start deportations.
“Removal flights from the United States to Haiti have now resumed,” he said in his statement. “In the last several weeks ICE has removed over 200 Haitian nationals and plans to significantly expand removal operations in the coming weeks.”
Mr. Johnson said that of the 41,000 migrants being held, more than 4,400 are Haitians.