Race Issues: Race Matters in the Haitian Refugee Crisis

The Haitian refugee crisis, in which thousands of asylum seekers have arrived at the United States southern border since September, is a continuation of an ongoing crisis of Haitian refugees and stateless people. Mass deportations continue a history of racialized exclusion of Black Haitian asylum seekers at U.S. ports of entry. The viral images of the U.S. border agents on horseback against Haitian migrants stems from abusive and racially discriminatory immigration policies under the Biden administration.

Haiti is living in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, as well as the assassination of their president, Jovenel Moïsey, which have both contributed to political instability. With the added strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, the population of Haiti is experiencing growing gang violence and kidnappings, according a report from Unicef. Combining all of these safety concerns with the inability of Haitian migrants to stay in the usual Latin American countries of refuge due to their own instability and violence has led to this increase of Haitian refugees in the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Trump administration took away temporary protected status (TPS) for Haitians in 2017, according to the New York Times. TPS provides legal immigration status to people from countries affected by civil unrest or natural disasters. Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, Trump enacted Title 42, which continued under the Biden administration, according to BBC News. Title 42 is not an immigration policy, but a public health emergency policy created to circumvent immigration laws and policies, as well as the rights of asylum seekers. This policy allows people who cross the border to be returned to Mexico or deported to their home country without the opportunity to seek asylum because of a public health emergency.

Haitians are being returned to Haiti under this policy, which effectively singles out asylum seekers crossing into the U.S. at land borders – particularly from Central America, Africa and Haiti who are disproportionately black, Indigenous and Latinx – for expulsion. Since Title 42 is technically a public health policy, the expulsions are purportedly on such grounds, but in reality are discriminatory and abusive. By contrast, thousands of other travelers are able to enter the U.S.

Title 42 is maintained by the Biden administration and authorizes the collective expulsion of any migrants and asylum seekers without an individual evaluation of their circumstances and protection needs. Haiti is the country with the highest rate of asylum denial in the United States, according to data from the Justice Department. As reported by the Associated Press, from October 2018 through June 2021, of 4,202 applications, only 194 were granted during this period.

In expediting the collective expulsion of Haitian migrants, the U.S. is subjecting a group of predominantly black migrants to impermissible risks of refoulement and human rights abuse without any individualized evaluation. Scheduled flights to Haiti are the most recent in a series of expulsions the administration has carried out, despite leaked documents showing that Homeland Security staff specifically warned that migrants and asylum seekers returned to Haiti may face harm, including violent crime, kidnapping, political crisis, and civil unrest, according to the Human Rights Watch

At a White House briefing, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas was asked by reporters about the lack of leniency towards Haitian asylum seekers, considering the growing gang violence and instability. He told reporters that the U.S. determined Haiti to be safe. Simultaneously, the State Department’s travel advisory for Haiti warns against “travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, unrest, and COVID-19.” Additionally, experts reminded the U.S. that, “international law prohibits arbitrary or collective expulsions.” States cannot label all migrants of a certain nationality threats to national security, and all migrants must be guaranteed the protections called for under international law.

Largely, what is being ignored are the circumstances in which the Haitians are escaping; the desperate efforts of families trying to reach safe land is very revealing of the conditions they must be eager to depart from. A quote from the poem, “Home”, by Somali-British writer and poet Warsan Shire illuminates this desperation: “You have to understand that no one puts their child in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” 

Many Haitians see U.S. immigration policy as historically racist and anti-black – pointing to the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, including the support of a brutal dictatorship and the recent massive surge of migration in Del Río, Texas. Recent news surrounding the treatment of Haitian migrants and refugees reinforces this notion of racially prejudiced immigration policies. The U.S. refuses to recognize Haitian migrants as asylum seekers and instead labels them as economic migrants in order to deny access across the border, as explained at this semester’s Du Bois lecture, led by Lehigh University’s Terry-Ann Jones, Ph.D. 

The Biden administration has not fulfilled its promise to rescind Title 42. Human Rights Watch and other groups have urged the administration to end the Title 42 policy under which the expulsions are being carried out because it is illegal and grounded in a false public health rationale. The Biden administration should actively confront and address the history of systemic racism in U.S. immigration enforcement and urgently overhaul racially discriminatory policies like Title 42.