Edwidge Danticat: The U.S.’s Long History of Mistreating Haitian Migrants

The current tragedy at the border is just the latest fallout from the U.S.’s failed policies toward Haiti.

A report by Edwidge Danticat for The New Yorker.

This past week, while looking at the heart-wrenching images of Haitian migrants—packed by the thousands under the Del Rio International Bridge, in Texas, or crossing at shallow points of the Rio Grande, or being chased by Border Patrol agents on horseback, or landing back in Haiti for the first time in years—I thought of some of my family’s own migration nightmares. I remembered my mother telling me how, while living in New York on an expired tourist visa, in the nineteen-seventies, she was arrested during an immigration raid at a garment factory. She was pregnant at the time with one of my younger brothers. Spotting and cramping, and held in a crowded cell, she thought that she’d miscarried, until she was finally seen by a doctor a few days later. I remembered my eighty-one-year-old uncle Joseph dying in U.S. immigration custody in Miami, in 2004, after fleeing Port-au-Prince’s Bel Air neighborhood in the wake of a bloody United Nations forces operation. He was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after requesting asylum at Miami International Airport. His medications were taken away, and, after his health deteriorated, he was brought to a local hospital’s prison ward, where he died shackled to a bed. I also remembered the hundreds of men and women I have seen at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport over the past decade, heading out of the country toward newer destinations, as hopeful and determined as my parents once had been to travel abroad, find work, send money home to their families, and eventually offer a better life to their children.

The mass expulsions from Del Rio this week are not the first time the current Administration has moved forcefully against Haitian migrants. During Joe Biden’s initial weeks in office, invoking a public-health measure known as Title 42, which had previously been used by the Trump Administration at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the Administration deported more than a thousand Haitians, including babies. (Last week, a federal judge ruled that migrant families could not be expelled under Title 42, a decision the Biden Administration is currently appealing.) Since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, in January of 2010, which killed roughly two hundred thousand and left a million and a half without homes, thousands of Haitians have been living in Brazil and Chile. As anti-immigrant sentiment in those countries grew and opportunities dwindled, Haitians and other migrants—including Cubans, Venezuelans, and Nicaraguans—travelled across Central and South America to reach the U.S.-Mexico border and request asylum. In March, though, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti tweeted a message from President Biden translated into Haitian Creole: “Mwen ka di sa byen klè: pa vini”—“I can say quite clearly: don’t come.”

In May, after continued pressure from Haitian-immigrant advocates, the Biden Administration extended the Temporary Protected Status, or T.P.S., by eighteen months for a hundred and fifty thousand Haitians who were already in the U.S.—something Biden had promised while campaigning in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, in October of 2020. But the U.S. has cracked down on those attempting to enter the country for the first time. Over the summer, Haiti faced a string of disasters, including the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, in July, and a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in the country’s southern peninsula, in August—which, according to Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection, killed more than twenty-two hundred people and destroyed homes, schools, churches, and health facilities. Tropical Storm Grace battered the same area soon after. As a result, small groups of Haitian migrants have been fleeing by sea, and those who haven’t been intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard have been arriving in South Florida.

On Thursday, it emerged that the Department of Homeland Security was advertising for a new contract to operate an existing migrant detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, with a requirement that some guards speak Haitian Creole. The White House has said that the Administration won’t transfer migrants from the border to that facility, but migrant advocates were rightly alarmed, given the facility’s history. In the early nineties, before terrorism suspects were detained there indefinitely, Guantánamo was used to warehouse around forty thousand Haitian asylum seekers who’d fled Haiti by boat after the country’s first democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a coup d’état carried out by the Haitian military, some of whose members had been trained in the U.S. and were on the C.I.A.’s payroll. Ninaj Raoul, the executive director of the Brooklyn-based immigrant advocacy group Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, worked as an interpreter at Guantánamo at the time. What she saw there was “the most blatant form of systemic racism that I had experienced,” Raoul told me this week, via e-mail. “Haitians were detained behind barbed wire, and in four foot square cages, a jail within a jail. This included women and in some cases even children.” Raoul sees many parallels between the treatment of Haitians back then and now. This week, she has been receiving voice messages from migrants under the Del Rio bridge, and elsewhere, including from a woman who’d travelled from Chile with her husband and baby, and was running out of milk to feed the infant. The current deportations are making the news because of the large number of migrants involved, she added. But, in many ways, “this situation at the border is not new at all. There will be no solution without directly addressing the root causes.”

For the past decade, Haiti has been disastrously ruled by the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (the Haitian Bald-Head Party), also known as P.H.T.K. Its standard-bearer, the musician turned politician Michel Martelly, came to power in a widely contested election cycle during the Obama Administration, and with help from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who travelled to Haiti and reportedly pressured the outgoing Haitian President, René Préval, to move Martelly through to the second round of voting. During the Trump years, Haitians held months-long protests against the government of Moïse, who was Martelly’s successor, citing corruption and his highly unpopular plan to rewrite the constitution and hold elections while ruling by decree. Yet the U.S., including the Biden Administration, continued to back Moïse, even as massacres were frequently carried out in poor opposition neighborhoods by heavily armed gangs with ties to Moïse’s regime. One of the most deadly and destabilizing factors in urban life in Haiti is the preponderance of guns. In spite of a 1991 U.S. arms embargo, the country is “awash” in American-made firearms and ammunition, as the Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles wrote in February, 2019, and suspected arms trafficking extends to the highest level of government. As Eugenio Weigend Vargas, the director for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress, told Widlore Mérancourt of the news site Ayibopost this week, “Immigrants are fleeing the violence that the United States is bringing to them.”

After Moïse’s assassination, the Biden Administration could have met with civil-society leaders, among them the Commission to Find a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, which has drafted an agreement that was recently signed by close to nine hundred organizations representing political, judicial, labor, feminist, agricultural, and diasporic groups, among others. Instead, the White House continued to support the P.H.T.K., which is now led by the de-facto Prime Minister, Ariel Henry. Henry is rushing to hold new elections, even as kidnappings spike and parts of the road connecting the country’s north and south remain impassable owing to the presence of armed gangs. There is currently no electoral process in place that the entire country can safely and fairly participate in, and another low-turnout contest, ushering in yet another President whose legitimacy is in question, will only repeat the cycle of the past decade. The Haiti that has compelled so many to flee in recent years is in many ways incapable of dealing with their forced return.

The devastating images from the border have only shown the rest of the world what some of us have long known. On Thursday, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, Dan Foote, resigned from his post over the Biden Administration’s “inhumane, counterproductive” deportation of Haitians. In his resignation letter, he noted the “catastrophic” consequences of outside interventions in Haiti. Asylum seekers should have the opportunity to make their case for a better life in America. As Foote pointed out, the Haitian people should also finally have the chance to chart their own course.

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