According to news reports, the Biden administration is considering housing Haitian migrants at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The base—which is best known for housing al-Qaeda terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11—has been used as a migrant detention facility several times in the past.

As a policy matter, there are suboptimal options, bad options, and terrible options. But given the Biden administration’s blatant abuse of mass parole for Haitian migrants in the last three years, it would be imprudent to import Haitians to the 45-square-mile Navy base in southern Cuba as there is a strong likelihood that many, if not most, would end up in the United States.

A Terrible Situation—Again

We are not insensitive to the plight of innocent women, children, and men in Haiti, who have suffered under corrupt and incompetent government leadership.

Through no fault of their own, they live in a country where political incompetence, unrest, and violence are the norm, and that has been the case for decades.

In the 20th century alone, there have been at least five political coups in Haiti.

But the way our country has responded in the past to mercurial flows of Haitians off the island directly affects the volume of Haitians who attempt to flee the island for the United States.

We have a long and complicated history of responding to Haitians attempting to come to the United States. President Joe Biden and Congress need to remember that history and should take no action that encourages more Haitians to come to America.

History Repeats Itself

Cuban President Fidel Castro announced in 1980 that he would allow any Cuban who wanted to leave Cuba to do so, reversing his previous prohibition on leaving the communist dictatorship.

As a result of Castro’s edict, over 1,700 boats laden with people departed from the Cuban port of Mariel and headed north to Florida.

Some 125,000 Cubans and approximately 25,000 Haitians entered the United States during the so-called Mariel boatlift. On June 20, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency and established the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program, or CHEP.

As the Supreme Court recounted in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, Inc., “On September 23, 1981, the United States and the Republic of Haiti entered into an agreement authorizing the United States Coast Guard to intercept vessels engaged in the illegal transportation of undocumented aliens to our shores.”

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation 4865. This was directed at the “ongoing migration of persons to the United States in violation of our laws,” which he called “a serious national problem detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

Those arrivals, Reagan’s proclamation read, had “severely strained the law enforcement resources of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and have threatened the welfare and safety of communities in that region.”

As a result, Reagan signed Executive Order 12324, ordering the suspension of migrants coming to the United States by sea. He also ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to enforce the suspension by interdicting any vessel in international waters carrying migrants and returning the vessel and its occupants “to the country from which it came.”

According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report, the Reagan administration established an agreement with Haiti to interdict (i.e., intercept and search) suspected Haitian vessels that departed from Haiti and were bound for the United States.

Most Haitians fleeing the country were considered economic migrants.

From 1981 through 1990, according to the Congressional Research Service, “22,940 Haitians were interdicted at sea. Of this number … 11 Haitians qualified for asylum in the United States.”

A coup deposed Haiti’s first democratically elected leader in September of 1991.

U.S. officials debated whether Haitians should be forced to return to their country. The Coast Guard suspended repatriations for a period of several weeks.

President George H.W. Bush worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to persuade countries in the region to take a few hundred Haitians scooped up by the Coast Guard.

As described in the Sale Supreme Court case, “during the six months after October 1991, the Coast Guard interdicted over 34,000 Haitians.”

The Department of Defense set up temporary processing and screening facilities at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, which only had a capacity of approximately 12,500 persons.

 The migrant flows from the island continued.

In the first three weeks in May 1992 alone, the Coast Guard intercepted 127 rickety vessels carrying 10,497 illegal aliens, causing the Navy to determine that it could no longer accept aliens at Guantanamo. 

This left the United States between a rock and a hard place. Bush had to choose between “allowing Haitians into the United States for the screening process or repatriating them without giving them any opportunity to establish their qualifications as refugees.”

Bush chose the second option and issued Executive Order 12807, which revoked Reagan’s executive order and replaced it with a similar order suspending the entry of illegal aliens coming by sea and repatriating those interdicted beyond the territorial sea of the United States.

Upon taking office, President Bill Clinton did not modify Bush’s executive order.

The Supreme Court held in the Sale decision that neither Section 243(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 nor Article 33 of the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees applied to actions taken by the U.S. Coast Guard in international waters.

The holding in Sale has not been overruled, which means that Biden could, with the stroke of a pen, order the U.S. Coast Guard to interdict vessels filled with Haitians outside the territorial waters of the United States (12 nautical miles) and return them to Haiti or other countries in the region willing to accept them.

Abuse of Mass Parole

The United States has been more than generous in its approach to Haitians fleeing their home country.

In the past few years alone, the Biden administration has adopted policies that have made it significantly easier for thousands of Haitians to enter America and remain here.

In 2022, the Biden administration resumed the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program, which was first established in 2014. This program allows “eligible U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to apply for parole for their family members in Haiti.” Further, it “enables family members who are approved for parole to come to the United States before their immigrant visa priority dates become current.”  

Additionally, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas extended and redesignated Temporary Protection Status for Haiti, allowing current recipients to continue receiving its benefits through Aug. 3 upon re-registering.

The redesignation allows Haitian nationals “who have been residing in the United States since Nov. 2, 2022, to apply for [Temporary Protection Status] for the first time.” As of March 2023, over 116,500 Haitian natives are covered by Temporary Protected Status, allowing them to work in the United States without fear of deportation.

Furthermore, on May 17, the Biden administration updated its review process for managing Haitian, Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan arrivals, stating that “The U.S. government may grant advance travel authorization to up to 30,000 noncitizens each month to seek parole ….”

Under this program, 85,300 Haitians were granted parole in the United States from January to September of 2023.

Now the Biden administration is proposing a “solution” for Haitian migrants that could have significant repercussions—housing them at Guantanamo Bay.

At best, this is a careless proposal given the extremely permissive policies that the Biden administration has already adopted toward Haitian nationals.

Instead, Biden should, like his predecessors, order the U.S. Coast Guard to interdict Haitians in international waters and forcibly repatriate them to Haiti.

This is the least terrible option given the choices at hand.