The parallel was striking.
Images from the banks of the Rio Grande last week depicted US Border Patrol agents on horseback, swinging long reins, as they attempted to round up Haitian migrants who sought refuge at the border. One agent could be heard in a video yelling insults at the migrants.
The scenes evoked a darker era of the nation’s history — from the 1800s, when slave patrols were used to control the movements of Black people.
But to some experts and advocates, the Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian migrants has not been surprising.
“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,” said Nana Gyamfi, executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
For immigrant rights advocates like Gyamfi, the federal government’s policies toward Haitian migrants in recent weeks only reinforces what they have long known: Haitians and other Black migrants fare differently under the US immigration system than migrants who aren’t Black.
The Biden administration has admitted some Haitians but deported many others
There are many reasons thousands of Haitians are even making the perilous journey to the US.
Some left their home country for South America more than a decade ago, fleeing a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people and initially displaced more than a million. Those that stayed saw their already struggling nation destabilize further — since then, Haiti has never fully recovered.
This year, as the country battled a global pandemic and an acute hunger crisis, the country’s President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in July. A month later, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,000 Haitians and left thousands more injured. The gang violence and poverty that Haitians were already facing got worse.
The compounding effects of those circumstances have prompted many Haitians to leave their homes in search of a better life.
To some extent, the US government has acknowledged just how dangerous conditions are in Haiti. Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced that an estimated 100,000 Haitians in the US would be newly eligible to apply for temporary protected status, which would allow them to remain lawfully in the country for 18 months. But the humanitarian protections apply only to those already in the US as of July 29.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands migrants — most of them Haitians — gathered at a makeshift encampment in Del Rio, Texas, where they lived in squalid conditions in hopes of being processed by the US immigration system. This surge of migrants caught US immigration authorities by surprise, and officials began ramping up deportation flights to deter more Haitians from coming to the border. Within days, the camp had been cleared.
Some migrants were convinced to cross the border back to Mexico, some were taken into federal custody and some were released in the US. Others, however, were expelled to Haiti without a chance to make a case for asylum — forced to return to a homeland more dangerous than the one they initially fled.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has cited three reasons why migrants might be released into the US, instead of expelled: They’re determined to be vulnerable, such as someone who is pregnant; operational capacity is strained; or the person could face torture if they were sent back. Those migrants would still need to complete immigration proceedings, where an immigration judge will ultimately determine if they can remain in the US or be deported.
Advocates, however, argue that the approximately 4,600 Haitians who have been removed from the US in recent weeks should have been allowed to stay and seek asylum, as per federal and international law.
“The United States was able to remove 10 to 15,000 people (from under the Del Rio bridge) in less than a week,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the advocacy organization Haitian Bridge Alliance. “So if they have the will to protect them, they can do that.”
US Customs and Border Protection pointed to recent comments by Mayorkas, who said the images last week at the border “do not reflect who we are, who we aspire to be, or the integrity and values of our truly heroic personnel in the Department of Homeland Security.”
He added that the US considered Haiti safe enough for migrants to return to.
“We have continued to study the conditions in Haiti, and we have in fact determined, despite the tragic and devastating earthquake, that Haiti is in fact capable of receiving individuals,” Mayorkas said at a September 24 White House press briefing. “And we are working with Haiti and with humanitarian relief agencies to ensure that their return is as safe and humanely accomplished as possible.”
Recent policies have aimed at deterring Haitians from entering the US
The US government has employed a number of policies in recent years to deter migrants from crossing the southern border. Many of these disproportionately affect Haitians.
The Biden administration is relying on a public health rule, known as Title 42, to swiftly remove migrants, including Haitians, encountered at the US-Mexico border. Title 42, invoked during the Trump administration, has come under intense scrutiny by immigrant advocates because it largely bars migrants from seeking asylum in the US.
The Biden administration has argued that the rule is being invoked to protect the health of migrants, border personnel and local communities given the recent influx of people at the border.
“We are doing this out of a public health need,” Mayorkas said at a September 24 White House press briefing. “It is not an immigration policy. It is not an immigration policy that we would embrace.”
In September, a federal judge blocked the Biden administration from expelling migrant families with children apprehended at the US-Mexico border under the public health order, but put that ruling on pause for two weeks. In the interim, the Biden administration appealed it and an appeals court granted the administration’s request to put the lower court order on hold.
Before Title 42, the US government was turning migrants away through a process known as metering. Beginning as early as 2016, those seeking asylum at the border were put on a waitlist and told to remain in Mexico until it was their turn to begin the asylum process. Metering primarily targeted Haitian asylum seekers, according to the advocacy group American Immigration Council, and migrants were often made to wait years before their claims were heard.
When their cases are finally heard, Haitians are granted asylum at the lowest rates of any nationality for whom data is available, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press.
Haitians and other Black migrants — including those from Jamaica, Liberia and Cameroon also face disproportionate contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, says Gyamfi.
Last year, more Haitian families were consistently detained by the US than those of any other nationality, according to the Texas nonprofit RAICES. The group also found that Haitians paid higher bonds than other detained immigrants, meaning that they also stay in ICE facilities longer.
Additionally, Black immigrants made up about 20% of those facing deportation on criminal grounds, though they comprise only 7% of the nation’s noncitizen population, according to a 2016 report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. That’s despite the fact that there’s no evidence to suggest Black immigrants are more likely than other groups to commit crimes.
“At the end of the day, it’s based upon the racial profiling — the same reasons that we find that African Americans are arrested disproportionately, that they’re charged with higher crimes, that they are sentenced to longer periods,” Gyamfi said. “All of that applies to Black migrants.”
CNN has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security for comment.
This treatment of Haitians by the US government isn’t new
The US government’s discriminatory treatment of Haitian migrants goes back decades, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations, experts said.
Haitians started coming to the US in larger numbers after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished nationality-based quotas, explained Regine Jackson, an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Agnes Scott College. Those numbers continued to grow throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
Under President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Haitian migrants were subject to special procedures that saw them detained and fast-tracked for deportation, often without adequate legal representation or translators. Though a federal judge would ultimately rule that process unconstitutional, Haitians continued to face restrictions and harsh treatment.
The way that Haitians were treated came down to a distinction between refugees, who are fleeing political oppression and generally eligible for asylum, and economic migrants, who are seeking better opportunities and generally ineligible for asylum, Jackson said.
The US took the position that admitting Haitians as refugees would affect diplomatic relations with the country’s anti-communist government, which was considered an ally. So it classified Haitians as economic migrants, even though some were fleeing the violent regime of US-backed dictator François Duvalier.
“That designation doesn’t acknowledge how political and economic circumstances — the root causes that lead to migration — are intertwined,” Jackson said. “We continue to see the legacy of that distinction even today.”
Jackson compares the treatment of Haitian migrants to the way another group of Caribbean migrants was treated: Cubans.
In 1980, more than 100,000 Cubans and thousands of Haitians arrived on US shores seeking refuge. But while Cubans were largely welcomed as political refugees and released into the US, Haitians were detained for longer periods of time or returned to their home country, she said.
“That is a distinction about nationality, but it’s also a policy that was racially motivated as well,” Jackson added.
When President Ronald Reagan came into office in early 1981, he instituted a new detention policy and directed the US Coast Guard to intercept boats carrying Haitian asylum seekers before they even reached US shores — policies that would continue through the ’90s under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Fears that Haitian migrants were infected with HIV/AIDS were also used as justification for their detention.
Still, Haitians keep coming to the US
Advocates say they hear from Haitian migrants that they want to live in a country where human rights are respected and where they and their children can be safe.
The reality for them, however, is often different.
“We as Americans sell a picture to the world that is not necessarily true,” said Jozef, with the Haitian Bridge Alliance.
“People believe in the freedom and liberty that will be provided to them if they come to the United States as asylum seekers, as refugees, or in need of protection, only to be met by violence and discrimination and anti-Black racism.”
Despite this, and what advocates say is a pattern of discriminatory treatment by US immigration authorities, many Haitians continue to make the journey to the US.
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