Demonstrators protest the government of President Michel Martelly in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, January. 24, 2016. (AP Photo / Dieu Nalio Chery)As the world’s first Black republic, Haiti holds a special place as the first nation in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. Haiti secured its freedom from slavery and colonial oppression over two centuries ago and has been paying the price ever since.
Among the poorest countries in the world, Haiti is exploited by governments and corporations alike, while refugees fleeing the Caribbean nation and making their way to the U.S. are subjected to an unfair and racist immigration policy.
The U.S. government has made it clear that it does not want Haitian refugees. In a press statement, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that the U.S. would resume its removal of Haitians from the country.
“Removal flights from the United States to Haiti have now resumed. In the last several weeks, ICE has removed over 200 Haitian nationals and plans to significantly expand removal operations in the coming weeks,” Johnson said, noting that Haitians comprise 4,400 of the 41,000 people in detention facilities. “I have authorized ICE to acquire additional detention space so that those apprehended at the border and not eligible for humanitarian relief can be detained and sent home as soon as possible.”
“We must enforce the immigration laws consistent with our priorities. Those who attempt to enter our country illegally must know that, consistent with our laws and our values, we must and we will send you back.“
Criminalization of Haitian Refugees
Ninaj Raoul, executive director of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, told Atlanta Black Star that the U.S. has vacillated between automatically detaining and deporting Haitian refugees on the one hand, and temporarily ceasing their removal due to earthquakes and hurricanes in recent years on the other. Now, the tide has shifted once again amid an increase in Haitian refugees crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The shifting that has taken place in the past six months … thousands of people have been coming up from the southern border, mostly from Brazil. They were welcomed after the earthquake. Brazil needed the labor for the Olympics. And tens of thousands of Haitians moved there,” Raoul said. “[But now] Brazil is experiencing political turmoil and economic crisis, which is pushing Haitians out because there are no jobs, there is no work for them. So, thousands decided to move north to the U.S.” Raoul made special note of the fact that Haitians must travel through 10 countries to reach the entry point where Tijuana meets San Diego.
Additionally, Haitians coming into this country are criminalized, Raoul said. Those who have been placed on “humanitarian parole” have been detained anywhere from two days to two months before being released and are forced to wear ankle monitors, she said.
“They’re traumatized, [it’s] very humiliating. It’s like a cell phone, you have to keep plugging it in,” Raoul said. Furthermore, Haitians are often detained in locations across the country where there are no Haitian communities — places like Colorado, Tennessee and Louisiana — and are separated from their families in the process, she said. And because they were in Brazil, very few bother to seek asylum, which would be a difficult argument to make in any case.
A Racist Immigration Policy
Haitians are subjected to a U.S. immigration policy that critics cite as uneven, hypocritical and downright racist. A stark illustration of the contrast is evident in the U.S.’s treatment of Cubans when compared to its handling of Haitians.
For example, in 2014, Al Jazeera America reported that thousands of undocumented Cubans were welcomed into the U.S. under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy of the 1965 Cuban Adjustment Act, a holdover of the Cold War era. And still today, once Cubans enter the U.S., they are not required to prove their eligibility for asylum and do not have to prove their lives are in danger or that they belong to a particular persecuted group. They are provided with food, work permits and health care, and they are registered, able to become permanent residents after only one year.
And in 2013, the U.S. took in 26,407 Cuban refugees and asylum seekers, nearly one quarter of the total number of such peoples admitted to the country that year.
A discriminatory immigration policy is but one example in the larger picture of the U.S.’s history of racism against Haiti, however. “The Haitian people have a long history of being discriminated against by the United States,” Tia Oso, National Organizer with Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) told Atlanta Black Star. “The United States government has a history of hostility towards Haitians, not respecting Haitian sovereignty and not respecting the humanity of the Haitian people.”
Further, Raoul noted that in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, neither the UN nor the U.S. allocated funds for relief efforts. “If it wasn’t a Black nation, the survivors would have been classified as refugees,” she said. Raoul added that the social unrest following the delayed election in Haiti was part of the ongoing instability exacerbated by the U.S. Yet, the U.S. rejects the claims of Haitian nationals seeking refuge in the United States.
Oso also pointed out the “significant social stigma” that deportees experience when they return to Haiti, a nation that is in no position to reintegrate them into society. As the North American Congress on Latin America, a nonprofit organization that reports on Latin America and the Caribbean, stated, deportees are stigmatized because they are easily identified by their American accents and behavior, as well as their lack of local history and personal contacts in Haiti. Further, most people assume deportees are criminals.
Economic vs. Political Refugees
Typically, Haitians are denied asylum in the U.S. because they are regarded as economic refugees as opposed to political ones. “It is ridiculous to screen for economic or political refugees and if you’re political, you can stay, but if you’re economic, you’re deported. But they are related,” said Raoul, of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees. “When we hear Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, we have to ask, ‘Why is it poor?’”
As Loyola law professor Bill Quigley wrote in the Huffington Post, when Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804, France and the U.S. imposed a crippling economic embargo on the nation until 1863. Further, the U.S., which held millions of African people in bondage, refused to recognize Haiti for 60 years, fearing that the world’s first revolution of enslaved people would encourage insurrection in America. Moreover, France forced Haiti to pay 150 million francs in reparations for freeing all of the enslaved people, at a current value of over $20 billion. Haiti paid off the loan in 1947 after it was forced to borrow money from the U.S.
In addition, the U.S. occupied Haiti through a brutal military rule between 1915 and 1934, killing thousands and siphoning off billions, Quigley noted. Further, between 1957 and 1986, Haiti suffered under U.S.-backed dictators “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Raoul told Atlanta Black Star that while the Red Cross and other entities have exploited Haiti for financial gain over the years, the role President Clinton and the Clinton Foundation played in destabilizing Haiti is particularly egregious. Clinton put Haitian farmers out of business, she explained, by subsidizing U.S. farmers with tax dollars to dump American rice and sugar into Haiti. According to Foreign Policy, Arkansas produces half of the rice in the U.S. Rice is a staple in Haiti, Raoul noted, and 30 years earlier, there was no need to import rice into the country.
America’s Moral Dilemma
Bill Fletcher, former president of TransAfrica Forum and Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, believes America has a moral obligation to help Haiti.
“You know how they say in the store, ‘If you break it, you own it?’ When the United States broke the backs of so many countries, it does not have the moral standing to dismiss the immigrants that come from those countries seeking better lives,” Fletcher told Atlanta Black Star. “And Haiti is at the top of the list of countries that the U.S. has gone out of its way to destroy, when you look at the blockade after Lincoln, the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.
“If you want to look at the various corrupt regimes that the U.S. has supported, it is hard for the U.S. to say, ‘We don’t want you here,’ and that is the discussion we should have.”
Fletcher believes the U.S. has an obligation to repair the damage to Haiti and provide special dispensation to the nation. “Repairing the economy, jobs, stabilizing the infrastructure, there are many things the United States can do without immigration, much like after World War II,” Fletcher said. “That’s my opinion, and that’s not very popular. The U.S. does not believe in history, it believes in myth.
“They don’t want to take responsibility, but they are quite all right with ripping off the world.”
The Future In Trump’s America
While the response from the U.S. government under President Obama has been more deportations, Black immigration advocates believe a Trump administration will have particularly dire consequences for Haitian and other Black immigrants. “Under the Bush administration in creating the Department of Homeland Security — and consolidating immigration, border control and ICE under the department — [this] created the nation’s largest police force. And that was beefed up under the Obama administration,” said BAJI’s Oso. “The framework and apparatus is really there for massive deportation of immigrant communities. And President Trump says he will take that even further by profiling people and using that as grounds for deportation.”
Oso said we are witnessing the integration of racial injustice and immigrants’ rights. “When you think about Black immigration, there is always a profiling of Black people and it bears out in the numbers,” she said, adding that, according the BAJI report, “The State of Black Immigrants,” Black immigrants are five times more likely to be detained than other immigrants.
“Since the election, we’ve seen a lot of anxiety and fear in the community because these are communities Donald Trump had targeted in the campaign. Forty percent of Muslims are Black,” including Somali immigrants living in Minnesota that Trump has targeted and vilified, she said.
“People say they want to secure the border, [but] the border is secure,” Oso added, noting that the larger issue is that “Haitian refugees coming across the Mexico border are a displaced population due to white-supremacist policies throughout Latin America.” For example, the president of Brazil was ousted by a white nationalist propaganda movement, a phenomenon that is taking place in other nations such as Venezuela, Colombia and possibly, France.
Fleeing political destabilization caused by the poor decision making of wealthy elites, Haitian refugees are now seeking asylum in the U.S., Oso said. And while they were first treated with humanitarian policies, now they face enforcement, which according to Oso is no deterrent.
“We cannot enforce our way out of the problem,” she said.
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