CIUDAD ACUNA, Mexico/WASHINGTON, Sept 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. special envoy to Haiti resigned in protest in a letter that blasted the Biden administration for deporting hundreds of migrants back to the crisis-engulfed Caribbean nation from a camp on the U.S.-Mexican border in recent days.
Daniel Foote, a career diplomat named to his post in July, said the "collapsed state" was unable to support the infusion of returning migrants.
"I will not be associated with the United States' inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants," Foote said in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that circulated publicly on Thursday.
Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has been hit in recent weeks by a presidential assassination, gang violence and a major earthquake.
The United States has returned more than 1,400 migrants from the camp in Del Rio, Texas to Haiti, including families, and moved over 3,200 people for processing away from the encampment, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said on Thursday. At its peak on Sept. 18 there were some 15,000 people at the camp, around two-thirds of those families, the officials said.
Many of the migrants say they hope to stay in the United States and seek asylum. But an expulsion policy in place since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic means most may not get that opportunity.
Some are being loaded onto flights back to Haiti while others are being released into the United States to pursue their immigration cases in court.
At least four deportation flights to Haiti were scheduled for Thursday, according to a flight tracking website and activists who track deportation flights.
Foote submitted his resignation to Blinken on Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson said, adding that Washington was committed to the long-term well being of Haiti, as well as offering immediate help to returning migrants.
State Department spokesman Ned Price rejected Foote's criticism, saying that "instead of participating in a solutions-oriented policy process, Special Envoy Foote has both resigned and mischaracterized the circumstances of his resignation."
"He failed to take advantage of ample opportunity to raise concerns about migration during his tenure and chose to resign instead," said Price.
Foote's decision was interpreted and welcomed by rights groups as a stern criticism of the administration's immigration strategy.
"A big bold move. And a big deal," said William O'Neill, a lawyer specializing in humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. "He will be missed."
Biden's handling of the situation at the border, where record numbers have been detained this year, has led to growing disillusionment from migration advocates who hoped for an end to deterrent measures brought in by his predecessor Donald Trump.
Julian Castro, a former housing secretary, wrote in a tweet that "it's baffling and disappointing that President Biden has not spoken out about the mistreatment and continued deportation of Haitian asylum-seekers."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist, said on a Twitter video that the Haitians should be granted asylum.
"If you come from a nation where the president has been assassinated in the last 60 days, followed by an earthquake, followed by a hurricane, I don't know how you can more qualify for asylum than that," he said.
While some Democrats have criticized Biden for being too tough, many Republicans have said Biden's efforts to introduce a more humanitarian approach, including the rolling back of some Trump measures, has encouraged illegal immigration.
In recent days, the population of the squalid encampment under a bridge over the Rio Grande has been reduced to around 4,000 by expulsion flights, detentions and releases.
DHS officials said that determinations on who was expelled and who has been allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their immigration cases were made on a "case-by-case" basis, without providing numbers of releases.
Wade McMullen, an attorney with the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, said several hundred people, mostly pregnant women and parents with children, had been released in Del Rio over the past several days.
Others have left the dusty riverbank for Mexico to avoid being sent home.
Mexican authorities in Ciudad Acuna, across the border from Del Rio, stepped up security operations on Thursday. Close to 20 patrol cars and numerous officers hoisted heavy-duty firearms, lining up along the river where migrants were crossing back and forth.
Jean Pie, 48, said he was awoken shortly after 6 a.m. from where he was sleeping on the grass on the Mexican side as police cars rolled by.
Like many of the Haitians, he had first tried to make a life in South America. Migrants have said they decided to head north when they encountered discrimination and dwindling opportunities in countries like Brazil and Chile.
He said he had spent two months and $3,000 to reach Mexico from Chile, including $500 to a man in Mexico who promised to take him from the southern city of Tapachula near the border with Guatemala to the U.S. border but then disappeared. He was also deported from Mexico to Guatemala by Mexican authorities.
"We are living in constant fear because Mexican migration officials can pick up anyone," he said. "I have run out of money. It is all just too much."
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