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Influx of boat voyages prompts “Ukrainian treatment” call for Haitian refugees

MIAMI — As the number of people fleeing Haiti increases, often through dangerous sea journeys, advocates say the United States must extend the treatment provided Ukrainian refugees to Haitians.

Tragic deaths such as that of the 17 people killed at sea July 24 in particular shed a light on the system’s injustices, said Alix Désulmé, a North Miami councilman serving the residents of district 4. While Désulmé “fully supports” Ukrainian refugees resettling in the U.S., he said, he wishes the government would extend the same hand to Black refugees. 

“We fully support them [Ukrainiains] because they are looking for a better life. But what’s the difference between them and us,” said Désulmé, also the former chair of the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network (NHAEON). “The treatment for Haiti is totally different.”

“I’d hope there would be some direction, or message from the government — the silence speaks value and shows they don’t care about Haitians,” he added.

Since the tragic July 24 voyage, authorities have continued to see an influx of refugees headed to Florida by boat. The U.S. Border Patrol responded to more than a dozen landings involving 372 migrants taken into custody in Florida between Aug. 3 and Aug. 5. On Aug. 6, more than 300 Haitian migrants landed in a vessel near Key Largo, and about 100 Haitians landed in the Middle Keys. On Aug. 9, Border Patrol agents took into custody 113 Haitian migrants who jumped into the sea and swam to shore near Key Largo, even as the Coast Guard sent 186 people back to Haiti the same day.

The “right way” to enter the immigration process for people who are in near death situations in Haiti, is not always possible, Désulmé said. The political instability in Haiti worsened after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, followed by food shortages, gang kidnappings and murder, he said. The United Nations reports that between January and June 2022, 934 killings, 684 injuries and 680 kidnappings occurred across the Port-au-Prince region. 

Haitians who make it to the U.S. are often repatriated or held in detention. The Biden administration deported thousands of Haitians who had fled Haiti. In contrast, the U.S. welcomed 100,000 Ukrainian refugees on TPS and granted TPS to another 30,000 living in the U.S. 

Cassandra Suprin of Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami said she has seen a double standard between the priority of Black and brown refugees compared to white.

“We do support the U.S. response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis,” said Suprin, the organization’s Family Defense Program director. “We just wish that such assistance can be offered to other nationalities; Afghans, Central Americans and Haitians.” 

The Biden administration launched a support effort called Uniting for Ukraine, welcoming Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion to the country. Similar to European countries’ policies, the U.S accepts people from Ukraine directly. It grants Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allows people facing emergencies in certain home countries to live and work in the U.S., to anyone arriving from Ukraine before April 11.The U.S. also provides access to humanitarian parole, which allows them to work. 

This treatment differs from that given to Haitians who try to arrive by sea or cross the land border. Most in the latter group are put under Title 42, expelling them from the U.S. before allowing the opportunity to express fear of going back to their home country. 

Some Haitians do get processed under the Immigration Nationality Act, but must fight for a credible fear interview despite there being documented political turmoil in Haiti, Suprin said. If granted refugee status, they need a relative in the U.S. to complete the process.

“There’s a lot of distinction, given how the U.S. responded to the Ukrainian situation,” said Suprin. “It’s hard to think there’s not a distinction compared to the Afghan refugee response down to Central America.”

With the political turmoil in Haiti, Americans for Immigrant Justice is preparing for more arrivals. 

The voyages, particularly by sea, are frequently deadly.

On July 24, a 30-foot vessel capsized in rough seas, killing at least 17 Haitians, marking the worst loss of life in Bahamian waters in the past four years, according to officials. The boat was en route to Miami carrying more than 50 Haitian migrants. 

Bohemian smugglers charged between $3,000 to $8,000 a person, Bahamas’ immigration minister, Keith Bell, said in a press conference July 24. Authorities revoked the work permits of survivors and deported them back to Haiti.

“I understand the situation that many of these migrants face that would encourage them to take such great risks,” Prime Minister Philip Davis said in a statement. “We however appeal to those considering making such a voyage not to do so.”

However, the journeys have continued to take place as they have all year, with dangers occurring both near Florida’s shores and further out at sea near the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and other islands. 

On July 28, five Haitians died in Puerto Rico after being thrown overboard. In May, 11 women were confirmed dead and 38 others were rescued in Puerto Rico. In January, one man was rescued, five men were confirmed dead and more than 30 people were never found when a boat capsized on the Florida coast. Their nationalities were not released, but the same day the Coast Guard intercepted 191 Haitian migrants in the waters near the Bahamas. 

“It has gotten worse because people are now desperate,” Désulmé said.

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