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Columbia halts flights to pressure Biden over immigration

 May 7, 2023

The Colombian government halted all incoming migrant deportation flights from the U.S. on Thursday, accusing American officials of abuse and mistreatment. With the expiration of Title 42 on May 11, this act of protest puts the Biden administration in a tough place regarding immigration reform.

The South American nation has had an agreement with the U.S. that any Colombian migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border would be deported back to their home country. There, they would wait in local processing centers until a final decision is made.

The US has made a similar deal with Mexico, which would have their southern neighbor help repatriate Venezuelan, Haitian, Cuban, and Nicaraguan migrants as well.

The U.S.-Colombian agreement was suspended last week, after Fernando Garcia, Colombian Migration Chief, criticized the U.S. handling of migrants and asylum seekers, saying, “There are recurring complaints about the poor conditions in detention centers and mistreatment during flights.”

The complaints from Garcia come after North American immigration agencies canceled two repatriation flights on May 1st and 2nd, following several delays. These were two of several flights set to return around 1,200 Columbians back to their home country.

Garcia also stated, "The use of restrictive elements such as hand and foot cuffs, even on women heads of household, has been one of the central aspects of the negotiations with the agencies to dignify the treatment of Colombians.”

The Clock Is Ticking

Title 42 is an immigration policy implemented by former President Donald Trump during the coronavirus pandemic. It allowed U.S. officials to turn away asylum seekers and other migrants for public health reasons, without hearing their claim.

The policy, in addition to global lockdowns, has managed to keep the number of migrants coming to the U.S. low. That number, however, has been rising each year with COVID restrictions easing and is expected to double once Title 42 expires, further straining the already overburdened immigration system.

It is set to come to an end next week following President Biden’s announcement of the end of the pandemic.

The number of Colombian migrants, specifically, has drastically risen in the last couple of years. Only around 6,200 Colombians attempted to enter the U.S. in 2021, while 2022 saw over 125,000 people.

As a result, the number of repatriation flights to Colombia has gone from 1-2 a month back in November to almost 20 a month today.

The U.S. is ramping up repatriation flights in general, according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, ahead of the May 11th deadline.

“This is a hemispheric challenge that demands hemispheric solutions,” he explained, adding, “Let me be clear, our border is not open and will not be open after May 11.”

Back to Business

On Friday, Garcia made a follow-up announcement, stating that repatriation flights will resume this upcoming week. The statement was made just one day after he ordered all deportation flights to be halted.

“U.S. authorities expressed their willingness to follow up on the complaints,” he explained, crediting them with an intention for “good will.”

No details were given about what reforms, if any, will be made regarding the treatment of migrants in the U.S.

While a crisis was quickly averted, experts suggest that this event could bring an unwanted spotlight on the controversial immigration topic. This could mean bad news for Biden ahead of the 2024 election, as he has not been as vocal about the subject compared to Trump.