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Rubio, Scott press White House to reveal its plans for Haiti, possible migrant influx to Florida

A resident walks past a National Police officer guarding the empty National Penitentiary after a small fire inside the jail in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Haiti, Thursday, March 14, 2024. This is the same prison that armed gangs stormed late March 2 and hundreds of inmates escaped. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)
Odelyn Joseph/AP
A resident walks past a National Police officer guarding the empty National Penitentiary after a small fire inside the jail in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Haiti, Thursday, March 14, 2024. This is the same prison that armed gangs stormed late March 2 and hundreds of inmates escaped. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott on Friday penned a strongly-worded letter to President Biden demanding that he inform Floridians of the White House plans to address the unfolding humanitarian and security crisis in Haiti and prevent what they anticipate to be a “drastic influx of Haitians” into Florida.

“The violence and unrest in Haiti is extremely alarming,” wrote the two Republican senators. “Florida is home to a vibrant community of Haitian-Americans, and we join them in praying for their loved ones and the Haitian people, and for an immediate return to peace and lawful order.”

“We believe that the people of Haiti deserve our sympathy, targeted American assistance and the support of the international community,” they said. “However, Floridians and the rest of the American public will not tolerate your administration again opening the floodgates for countless, unvetted foreign nationals to stream into our country, putting our national security at grave risk and creating untold public safety threats for our communities.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida
U.S. Senate
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida
U.S. Senate
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida

Roots of latest Haitian crisis

The situation in Haiti is dire. The capital of Port-au-Prince and other areas have been overrun by powerful gangs. On Feb. 29, gunmen launched a series of attacks on key state institutions, including police stations, the main international airport and Haiti’s two biggest prisons, where more than 4,000 inmates were freed. Scores of people have died in the attacks, and more than 15,000 people have been left homeless.

Humanitarian aid groups say some 1.4 million Haitians are on the verge of famine, and more than 4 million require food aid, sometimes eating only once a day or nothing at all.

The chaotic situation has Florida officials preparing for the potential arrival of Haitian migrants, especially in the Florida Keys.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, anticipating what his office called the “possibility for invasion," last week ordered more than 250 law enforcement officers and soldiers to the Florida Keys.

So far, the Coast Guard hasn't seen any increased migrant traffic in the waters off Florida.

“Currently, no, there's nothing out of the ordinary,” Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Stephen Lehmann in Miami told the Associated Press last week. “We have resources in the area and standing by if we do see an influx.”

In their letter to Biden, Rubio and Scott blamed the administration for the dire situation in Haiti.

“What the world is witnessing in Haiti as gangs take over the island is a symptom of political unrest in the Western Hemisphere that only has grown under your administration,” they wrote.

“Since taking office, you have repeatedly ordered policies that appease evil regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as they work to destabilize the region,” they wrote. “What is even more frustrating is that your administration appears totally unprepared to deal with the consequences of the political unrest these regimes create and support with the assistance of your appeasement policies.”

Biden administration defends Haiti approach

The Biden administration has defended its approach to Haiti.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters earlier this month that long term goal of U.S. policies are to stabilize the country so Haitians can hold elections and govern themselves.

But in what was a telling slip that speaks to the neglect Haiti has suffered in Washington of late, Jean-Pierre confused the Haitian president, the country’s top elected official, with the prime minister, who is picked by the president and subject to parliamentary approval.

“It’s the Haitian people — they need to have an opportunity to democratically elect their prime minister,” Jean-Pierre, whose parents fled Haiti, told reporters on March 6. “That’s what we’re encouraging. But we’ve been having these conversations for some time.”

James Foley, a retired career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Haiti, told the Associated Press in a recent interview that Biden administration’s support for Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry backfired. Henry had said he will resign once a transitional president council is formed.

“They messed it up deeply,” said Foley. “They rode this horse to their doom. It’s the fruit of the choices we made.”

In their letter to Biden, Rubio and Scott posed a series of questions they want the White House to answer regarding its plans “to prevent and stop a mass migration of Haitians to the United States.”

They specifically want to know if the administration will conduct background screenings and monitor individuals upon their entry, and if detained migrants will be housed in Florida.

The Florida Immigrant Coalition and others last week criticized DeSantis for sending law enforcement officers to the Florida Keys.

“It is crucial to recognize that the crisis in Haiti is not solely a matter of immigration but a humanitarian crisis that demands a comprehensive and compassionate response the coalition said in its statement.

"The proposed deployment of over 250 Florida state officers and soldiers of Florida’s National Guard is an inappropriate militarized response designed to intimidate Haitian immigrants who have already suffered immeasurable trauma”, said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Family Action Network Movement. She’s also a Miami-Dade commissioner and a longtime advocate for the South Florida Haitian community.

"These are human beings– mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters — who are seeking shelter from gang-perpetrated murder, kidnapping, and rape in Haiti, not ‘illegal aliens’ from which Florida’s National Guard must ‘protect’ Florida and ‘defend its people,’ as Governor DeSantis described them,” Bastien said.

State Rep. Dotie Joseph, D-North Miami, said DeSantis should stem the flow of illegal gun shipments to Haiti to deny local gangs the weapons they use to terrorize the country.

"We know that the guns — none of which are manufactured in Haiti — are being shipped from the United States, and primarily from Florida," she said in a statement. "Rather than harass refugees who are literally fleeing for their lives, the state government can focus its law enforcement resources on making sure shipments from Florida are properly screened for illegal arms and munitions."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Sergio Bustos is WLRN's Vice President for News. He's been an editor at the Miami Herald and POLITICO Florida. Most recently, Bustos was Enterprise/Politics Editor for the USA Today Network-Florida’s 18 newsrooms. Reach him at sbustos@wlrnnews.org
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