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The Ongoing Mistreatment of Haitian Refugees by the United States

National or foreign policy, the tone set in legislation changes the themes of our lives, especially the lives of those who are most underserved

Photo by Jannik Kiel on Unsplash

America’s ongoing border crisis reached headlines yet again when a video surfaced of an altercation between border patrol agents and Haitian refugees at the Del Rio, Texas borderline. The video and subsequent photos show U.S. officials using horses to coral Haitian refugees on foot, many of whom had been traveling for months to get to this point, holding all they own in plastic bags. In the hands of the border patrol agents, however, are their reins, mimicking whips while they swung them around. To most of whom who have seen it, it looks like 1800s-esque slave patrols (Kaur, 2021). These images are showing how the United States handles refugees, all-the-while highlighting the cracks in the façade of the American dream pitched internationally.

In every presidential administration there has been an international conflict which they deem an acceptable excuse for terrorizing immigrants, refugees, and other foreign citizens. For the Bush (II) administration, it was 9/11. For Obama, ongoing conflict in the Middle East. The Trump admin was more transparent in their goal to simply make America great (read: white) again, but Biden has opted, again, for a front. The Biden administration will be, and has been, a menace to refugees under the guise of “public health” (Sullivan and Kanno-Youngs, 2021). As a matter-of-fact, the Biden Administration has already cited Trump’s public health rule 700,000 times to expel migrants in less than a year (Sullivan and Kanno-Youngs, 2021). Alejandro Mayorkas, first Latinx to be appointed as Secretary of Homeland Security, has gone on the record to say that the photos of mistreatment towards Haitian refugees are not the truth, however. “[They] do not reflect who we are or [. . .] the values of our truly heroic personnel in the Department of Homeland Security” (Kaur, 2021). So, the question now begs, what are we missing from these photos to know the full story? What are the real values of the Department of Homeland Security, and presumably the Biden Administration?

The full story behind those horrific photos at the border begins with the first Haitian refugee conflict in 1969 (Kaur, 2021). The immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished nationality quotas (Kaur, 2021), which disproportionally targeted black and brown populations. Shortly after, the Carter administration attempted to impose refugee restrictions (expedited deportation and extended detainment) particularly towards Haitians, but failed after it was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (Kaur, 2021). Regardless, incoming Haitian refugees were still discriminated against when the government refused to acknowledged their plight as political oppression, opting for the term “economic migrants”, instead (Kaur, 2021). It is important to note that the term economic migrants generally makes refugees ineligible for asylum and reverts them back to the diluted immigration process. The decision to make the significant alteration to their status didn’t come from an assessment of safety conditions in the country, either. The United States had been supporting Haiti’s then-dictatorship of the anti-communist François Duvalier, and chose not to recognize the political oppression out of fear it would disrupt diplomatic relations (Kaur, 2021).

In the decades following the Carter administration, the United States did begin to accept more refugees. In the 1980, 207,000 refugees legally sought asylum in the United States (Monin, et. al, 2021). But, the Haitians who successfully reached asylum did not do so without further discrimination. During this time President Reagan directed the coastguard to intercept ships of Haitian refugees to advocated for a deterrence policy (Jones, 1995). Those who made it had to be “screened-in”, and those who were “screened-out” faced persecution or death once back in Haiti, at the tail end of it’s final dictatorship (Jones, 1995). It wasn’t until 1992 under Executive Order 12,807 by President Bush (I) that the deterrence practices ended (Jones, 1995). For reference, this came two years after Haiti’s last dictatorship (Jones, 1995).

In recent years Haitians have been free of dictatorships, but they have continued to be met with other formidable struggles outside those presented by the United States. The Associated Press has cited the death toll of the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 “ranging from around 100,000 to more than 300,000 people”. Those who survived are still facing the aftermath, many experiencing homelessness due to the earthquake (AP, 2020). The trauma for Haitians has only continued over the last decade, with 2021 encompassing the worst of it. In addition to the global pandemic, which triggered a national hunger crisis, the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moise, was assassinated one month before the devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed over 2,000 Haitians (Kaur, 2021). If you were wondering why Haitians have continued to seek out the United States for asylum despite the historic lack of empathy, these are the odds they’re up against.

So, the full story behind those photos of border patrol agents trying to coral Haitians back to Mexico is embedded in America’s ongoing mistreatment of Haitian refugees. The values of Homeland Security can be found in the same. It took two days for the Biden administration to deport 1,000 Haitians, and in-between promises of restoring asylum programs, they also had the resources to schedule 7 flights a day, 125 seats per flight, to deport more Haitians (Sullivan and Kanno-Youngs, 2021). For reference, these numbers rival the whole of refugees that were accepted to the United States in 2020, only 12,000 people (Monin et. al, 2021). Some, however, may remember that earlier this year the Biden administration did, in fact, grant over 100,000 Haitians living in the United States eligibility to apply for temporary protected status, which would allow them to legally live in the United States for 18 months (Kaur, 2021). This initiative was significant, and the administration rightfully recognized the conditions of Haiti to be extreme; However, the conditions of Haiti have not changed since then (Sullivan and Kanno-Youngs, 2021). The people immigrating now are no different than the ones who were already here. In fact, some of the asylum seekers in Del Rio had left Haiti years ago, too. What the Biden administration did was put a temporary, progressive band-aid over the ongoing dismissal of Haitian immigrants, only to add to the injustices a few months later. These photos are a continuation to the list of ways the United States has mistreated these refugees in the midst of political, social, environmental and economic devastation throughout the decades.

When people hear the term “foreign policy”, they often interpret it as something removed, abstract, or even technical. When I tell people I study foreign policy, I get questions like “okay, but what is that really?” There’s no one answer to that, therefore I usually start rambling, but one response could be immigration policy; something most people in the United States are actually very in touch with. Under the Trump administration there was more exposure to this kind of legislation than ever before. The Muslim Travel Ban, Child Separation Policy, and other controversial legislation likely caught the attention of even those most removed from politics. It has been made clear that the United States has a problem with immigrants, refugees, and basically any other non-citizen (so much so that we even go to other countries just to, ya know, bomb only their civilians). Although these people come from all over the world, in recent history they do all have one thing in common: They are non-white.

Without erasing the plight of white-passing Latinx immigrants and asylum seekers, it’s important that we recognize there is something particularly sinister about the photos from the Del Rio border. We have witnessed grave and traumatizing injustices to the Latinx community in the last several years (and throughout history), but these photos replicate slavery-era treatment of Black people. It is not a coincidence that Haiti has an extensive history of slavery at the hands of French Colonization, and a successful slave rebellion, either. Whether the Department of Homeland Security Recognizes it, whether the individual Border Patrol Officers recognize it, and whether the public recognizes it or not, the actions presented in these photos were meant to be dehumanizing on a different, historical level.

The treatment of Haitian immigrants by Homeland Security isn’t simply an immigration problem, it’s also a race problem. Harmeet Kaur cited Nana Gyamfi in saying:

“When Black asylum seekers or Black immigrants are confronted by state power, whether it be the local police on the streets or (federal agents) … they’re confronted in a violent manner on different levels than what we see happening with migrants that are not Black.”

Violence is not the only thing Haitians, and other Black migrants, face differently, either. A nonprofit from Texas by the name of RAICES did an independent study that found Haitians paid a higher bond than any other detained immigrant In ICE facilities (Kaur, 2021). Furthermore, Black immigrants comprised 20% of migrants deported on criminal grounds, despite being only 7% of the United States’ migrant population (Kaur, 2021). This ratio is strikingly similar to that of detained Black Americans in federal prisons, and it’s on par with the way the Department of Homeland Security has tried to spin the story. Border Patrol Chief Raul L. Ortiz stated that the officers shown on horseback were actually there to “gather intelligence about smuggling organizations” (Sullivan and Kanno-Youngs, 2021). He went on to say that the whole thing (trying to dehumanize refugees) was just Border patrol “trying to send a strong deterrence message” (Sullivan and Kanno-Youngs, 2021). If that doesn’t sound familiar, I suggest you look back on the Carter and Reagan administrations. America has not changed.

For those of us who aren’t involved in politics, whether it be out of privilege or lack of availability, I implore you to think about the applicability of “politics”. When people speak about party alignment, elected officials, and policies, it is not abstract. National or foreign policy, the tone set in legislation changes the themes of our lives, especially the lives of those who are most underserved. There is a moral responsibility to be the voice of injustice, especially those of us who are privileged enough not to be affected by it.

(P.S. Thank you to Natasha for suggesting I write about this. I am open to taking suggestions from anyone!)

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Ashlyn King

Ashlyn King

Social Justice Issues, International Affairs, and anything else interesting I have to say. . .

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