Haitian Refugee Crisis

Abiha Hasan

Currently 15,000 Haitian Refugees are camped under the Del Rio Bridge in Texas and are being treated inhumanely– many comparing these refugees, people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, and/or natural disasters, to slaves working the southern plantation fields. The United States’ inhumane and unlawful treatment of Haitian refugees whom the country has often cast as criminals, diseased, and inferior has been a central part of the immigration detention story. This treatment is historically not new and has been active since the racist founding of Border Patrol and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Haiti’s crisis started from the cruel dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Duvalier, who became president in 1956 and caused nearly 30,000 deaths, political dissent, extreme poverty, and illiteracy. His dictatorship was founded on his declaration to become president for life paired with his absolute nationalistic regime that promoted a cult of his person as the semi-divine embodiment of Haiti. His death ended his reign, but the effects of his dictatorship were carried out by his son and a series of military governments. From then, there have been both natural, political, and economic disasters that have shifted the country, putting many Haitians in dangerous circumstances. The current wave of Haitian migrants is in the aftermath of a 7.2 earthquake and tropical storm that killed an estimated 2,200 (with thousands more missing or injured) and caused irreparable damage to homes and infrastructure. In July, their president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by a hired hit-men group. Although it is not confirmed, police suspect Haitian national, Christian Emmanuel Sanon, hired the hit men group because he wanted to be the next president of Haiti. Moreover, the assassination of their president resulted in a worsened uprising in instability, gang power, and violence ,which has put Haitian families in legitimate fear for their lives. 

Before arriving in Del Rio, Haitians stayed in horrible conditions in Brazil, Chile, and southern Mexico, where they’ve either been kicked out of or have been treated so inhumanely and put in such difficult conditions that they had to escape. Southern Mexico detention centers are known for doing the “dirty work” for the US by detaining migrants who’ve crossed the border. Escaping those centers, Haitians have had to face police forces, prisons, natural challenges, lack of food and water, illness, and fatigue. In Del Rio, there has been photographed evidence of refugees being horrifically beaten: uniformed men are shown to swing their long horse reins (interpreted as whips) to keep the migrants from crossing into Texas.  In one video, an agent is shown to grab the T-shirt of a migrant, while another shouted, “Get out now! Back to Mexico!” Haitians were crossing the river back and forth to get food for their families, but were blocked by Border Patrol Agents’ horses. When doing so, someone videotapes an agent grabbing a migrant, who was trying to get around the horses with the others to get food, from the shirt and swinging him around while the horse jogged in a circle. In response to these videos, the US Border Patrol Chief, Raul L. Ortiz, put out a statement where he defends his agents, but says that the agency “will certainly look into the matter to make sure that we do not have any activity that could be construed as a response… that is unacceptable.” Likewise, US Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, also sent out a statement where he defends the agency but says that he will investigate the claimed abuse towards Haitian refugees. Mayorkas also continued to say that Haitians have been mistakenly informed that they are welcomed in the United States as refugees under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) due to the recent political instability and natural disasters. President Biden did allow TPS for Haitian refugees after the July assassination of the Haiti president, but it was only extended for people that were in America on or before July 29. In fact, he says that after making “an assessment based on the country’s conditions, as we are required to do, that… Haiti could in fact receive individuals safely.” Moreover, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Haitian Prime Minister, Ariel Henry Monday, “about cooperation to repatriate Haitian migrants on the southern border of the United States,” as said by the State Department. Blinken also spoke by phone with his Mexican counterpart Marcelo Ebrard about “coordination to manage the flows of irregular migrants,” a spokesman informed. Invoking Title 42, a public health policy that was passed by the Trump administration in 2020 that justifies removals by the US Government of persons who have recently been in a country where a communicable disease (being COVID-19) was present, President Biden is returning Haitians to an unstable and violent country. 

Withal, Haitians have always been treated differently than any other migrant group. For instance, most of them are denied asylum, are detained longer, and it’s harder for them to settle down to safety. For example, in 1990, vastly most of the detained 12,000 Haitian refugees at Guantanamo were denied asylum. Carl Lindskoog, a professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey and author of Detain and Punish: Haitian refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention Center, says, “Policies were specifically designed to deter Haitians from coming in. These policies became the prototype for what became a global system of migrant incarceration.” Lindskoog calls into the idea of how the criminal justice system has been combined into the immigration system: they’re both two systems built on racist foundations setting up immigrants for failure. Firstly, immigrants are usually incarcerated in detention facilities or prisons for trying to get into the US, and while in the US, they are highly criminalized, facing chances of deportation from getting a parking ticket to having to face judges, courts, and trials to plead for asylum. Additionally, Lindskoog brings to light the racist background of Border Patrol’s establishment in the 1920s: an alliance with the KKK and racist Texas Rangers. In 1924, a national bill, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, was passed, placing new racist immigration quotas and exclusions as part of American immigration policy. The bill favored northern and eastern european immigrants and decreased immigrants coming into the US from 165,000 – 300,000 people annually. Border Patrol was created to control and police the immigrants coming in from Mexico, the southern border, and the Carribeans. Moreover, Haitians really started being discriminated against when the “boat people” (working-class urban and displaced Haitians) started to come to the US in the 1970s. Beforehand, only students were arriving during the 1940s to the 1960s. When Americans and the US government saw educated and working black people coming in on claims of asylum, there was a lot of racist backlash, especially from southern Florida.

As a solution, the Carter administration introduced something called the Haitian Program, a punishing set of policies designed to deter Haitians from coming in and to keep the ones already in the US out of mainstream populations, which meant incarcerating them into detention facilities and prisons while ignoring their asylum claims and setting them up for deportation. In 1980, the district court case Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti ended in the overturning of the Haitian program by Judge James Lawrence King, the senior judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida since 1992 and one of the longest serving federal judges; however, the Carter administration worked to circumvent the ruling. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Reagan administration introduced a new Haitian detention program and policy of interdiction, in which Coast Guard cutters would intercept boats of Haitian asylum seekers before they could even reach land and send them back to often unstable and violent conditions in Haiti.

Moreover, notably, there have been similar refugee crises around the world. Venezuelans, for example, are fleeing their home country because of political strife, human rights abuses, and lack of economic opportunity. Most citizens are fleeing to Colombia, where they also face a crisis: access to school for Venezuelan children is being challenged. Another example is the Rohingya Refugee crisis. Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group who have lived for centuries in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, have been stripped of their ethnic identity and are considered to be a stateless population. Rohingya refugees have to seek asylum in nearby countries like Bangladesh and face difficulties there, finding shelter being the biggest one.

Haitians have been discriminated against and excluded, notably throughout history and immigration policies by claims of Haitians carrying diseases (being AIDS, HIV, turbecolorosis, or COVID 19) and racial stereotypes. They have been met with violence and racist backlash, and although there have been claims of investigations, historically, these investigations have not led to real results. To help refugees around the world, educate yourself, spread awareness, protest, and donate to organizations who devote resources and time to help these groups. Hold this statement accountable and true: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”