White House says it is not sending Haiti migrants at border to Guantanamo

WASHINGTON, Sept 23 (Reuters) - The Biden administration has no plans to send any of the thousands of Haitian migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to a special holding facility at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The officials threw cold water on the idea of using the longtime facility for some of the Haitians gathered at the Texas border. The statement is a response to media speculation stirred by a U.S. government advertisement of a new contract to run the migrant center.

U.S. authorities, on and off for decades, have temporarily housed and processed migrants apprehended at sea trying to get to the United States at the Migrant Operations Center at Guantanamo.

The facility is located on the same military base where the United States operates a prison for foreign terrorism suspects captured after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The Guantanamo jail came to symbolize the excesses of the U.S. “war on terror” because of harsh interrogation methods in earlier years that critics say amounted to torture.

The lesser-known migrants center once held thousands of Haitian "boat people" in the early 1990s but has been little used in recent years, though the U.S. government has continued to maintain it.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a media briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 23, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Asked whether any Haitian migrants would be sent there from the U.S.-Mexico border, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: "There's never been a plan to do that."

"I think there was some confusion related to the Migrant Operations Center, which has been used for decades to process migrants interdicted at sea for third-country resettlement."

A bid solicitation from the Department of Homeland Security last week that asked private companies to apply to operate the migrant facility was a “typical, routine first step in a contract renewal, and unrelated to the Southwest Border," tweeted Marsha Espinosa, DHS assistant secretary of public affairs.

The bid request caused "confusion because of the timing" Psaki said. The Biden administration has been struggling with the influx of Haitians to a makeshift camp at the border, deporting some and taking others into custody.

The document said the Guantanamo facility would have "an estimated daily population of 20 people" but that the service provider should be prepared to "erect temporary housing facilities for populations that exceed 120 and up to 400 migrants in a surge event."

It also requires that "at least 10% of the augmented personnel must be fluent in Spanish and Haitian Creole."

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Heather Timmons and Merdie Nzanga Editing by Chris Reese and Aurora Ellis

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