The United States is temporarily suspending deportations of Haitians after Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc on the Caribbean island.
But Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson also made clear that the U.S. plans to resume deportation flights soon, and will continue to prioritize the deportation of Haitians attempting to enter the U.S. without permission.
His statement comes as growing numbers of Haitian migrants have found themselves bottle-necked in Tijuana and other Mexican communities along the U.S. border, and as immigration activists and members of Congress petition the U.S. to halt deportations of Haitians entirely.
The statement was released as Johnson visited Mexico City to discuss immigration and security issues with top Mexican officials, who are growing increasingly wary of the Haitians languishing in Tijuana and other Mexican border towns.
At the San Ysidro border crossing opposite Tijuana, U.S. immigration officials haven't been able to keep up with the large number of Haitian and other asylum seekers who have been showing up without valid entry documents. Applicants are being asked to wait for weeks for an appointment with an immigration official. Many have ended up in overcrowded homeless shelters in Tijuana or in some cases sleeping on the streets.
For years, after a 2010 earthquake devastated parts of their island nation, Haitians were given a special immigration dispensation that allowed many of them to stay in the U.S. That same year, the U.S. stopped deporting Haitians altogether, saying it was dangerous to send them back to such unstable conditions.
By 2011, the U.S. resumed limited deportations of Haitian immigrants with criminal convictions, but continued to allow the majority of Haitians to stay. That policy was abruptly reversed Sept. 22, when Johnson directed immigration officials to begin widespread deportations of Haitians.
Johnson's September announcement drew outrage from immigration activists and threw the community of Haitians waiting on the border into chaos, with some contemplating staying in Mexico to avoid likely deportation back to Haiti.
Many of the migrants currently at the border had been living for years in Brazil, which welcomed Haitians after the 2010 earthquake. Many helped construct stadiums or other buildings for the 2014 World Cup and this year's summer Olympic Games. But when work dried up this spring and the Brazilian economy slumped, many Haitians trekked thousands of miles up through South and Central America in hopes of reaching the U.S.
Johnson's statement Wednesday seemed designed to dissuade more from coming.
"This should be clear: The policy change I announced on Sept. 22 remains in effect, for now and in the future," he said. "DHS intends to resume those flights as soon as possible."