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US should welcome Haitian refugees as it does Ukrainians | Opinion

At the height of the Haitian “boat people” crisis in the 1990’s, a group of Haitians heading to South Florida happened on a carrier loaded with Cubans stranded at sea. The Haitians, despite their vessel being full, made room for the Cubans and continued sailing northward. 

When the group reached Florida, the Cubans were reunited with friends and family members, while the Haitians were jailed and eventually deported. 

The preferential treatment given to Cubans was a decades-old policy dating back to the Cold War, known as “wet-foot, dry-foot”.  In 2017, President Barack Obama ended the practice, which had given Cuban refugees the right to live in America if they reached U.S. soil.

Over the years, we’ve seen a version of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy play out vis-à-vis Haitians and other migrants seeking asylum here. Haitians are still being deported while others get to stay. 

Latest case in point: Ukrainians. With Russia invading Ukraine, unleashing holy hell on its western neighbor, Ukrainians have been fleeing by the thousands, with many heading to the United States. 

To be clear, I deplore the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin deserves the sanctions imposed on his country and his minions across the globe. Despite the sheer size of his military, the Ukrainians have proven to be tough as nails. But this war, unfortunately, will drag out for a long time. The Russian army looks like a Potemkin force and Putin badly underestimated the fight in the Ukrainians.

As I watch American political leaders of all stripes demand that President Joe Biden welcome Ukrainians to the U.S., I have been thinking of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy. Last week, Ohio Republican governor Mike DeWine, said that the Buckeye State was built by immigrants and will welcome any refugee from the Ukraine. He made no such comment last summer as Haitians fled in droves after Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise was assassinated and the country plunged into chaos, punctuated by a series of natural disasters. 

The Ukrainians deserve refuge from war, and so do the Haitians whose country is experiencing a series of never-ending kidnappings, killings and a non-functioning government. Haitians have been sheltering in place for more than three years as gangs rule the streets and the police remain unable to restore order. 

I understand Ukraine’s geopolitical importance. It literally sits at a crossroads between Russia and the West, and many of us worry that this conflict may unleash World War III. Haiti, on the other hand, is seen as more of a nuisance than of any geopolitical importance. Plus, the idea of admitting thousands of Black people into the U.S. scares right-wing zealots to death — and liberals as well. The latter, remarkably, has shown no outrage at the naked unfairness of the policy. 

Still, while Haiti does not command any geopolitical significance, it is however a symbol of Black Lives Matter movement. Haiti has been front and center of this racial struggle for centuries, long before the term was coined. Its independence from France in 1804 was seen as a major threat to European hegemony, especially the peculiar institution known as slavery that enriched the U.S. southern states.

Democrats and Republicans alike have not embraced the plight of Haitian asylum seekers. True, the Obama administration gave Haitians Temporary Protected Status (TPS) after the earthquake in 2010. But the first Black president  has deported so many migrants, largely from Latin America, that he was given the moniker of “deporter in chief.” 

Biden has not been any kinder to Haitians. Steve Forrester, a long-time advocate of Haitian rights, has kept a daily log of Haitians deported back to Haiti. According to Forrester’s Mar. 18 update, the Biden administration has chartered 210 deportation flights, sending thousands of Haitians back to a country that the U.S government deems too unsafe for Americans to travel. 

“Today’s Haiti expulsion flight is Biden’s 210th expelling about 20,800 Haitians since February 1, 2021, his 173rd expelling about 18,700 Haitians since September 19, his 82nd since December 13, 57th this year, and 21st since February 1… At least 45% of the expellees are women and children including many, many hundreds of infants.  Meanwhile, violence and impunity in Haiti continue, and Haitian boat migrant arrivals in Florida have been on the rise.”

So as things continue to fall apart in Haiti, Haitians are forced to endure food insecurity, violence, and governmental corruption, and there is no respite ahead. They are told to suck it up because they’re not wanted here, nor anywhere else for that matter. 

What the Ukraine situation has laid bare is that there is a double standard at play here: If you’re white, welcome. If you’re Black, get back. I challenge my white liberal friends and family members to push back on that statement. One of the themes that emerged from the BLM reckoning is that silence is complicity. 

I don’t expect people to take to the streets or petition their government for just and equitable treatment of Haitians trying to flee the dysfunction in their country. It’s not going to happen. But I think it’s time that we Haitians look to our cousins, the African Americans, and solidify the bond. 

Last year, everyone watched in horror as U.S Border Patrol agents, mounted on horses, whipped Haitians traversing the Rio Grande. Black lawmakers’ immediate and forceful outrage made a difference. 

I remember the indignation of Maxine Waters, the California Congresswoman, vividly as she raised her raspy voice to its highest decibel, rightly comparing the searing photos of the agents’ actions at the border to slavery. 

Under blistering pressure, Biden allowed a few hundred Haitians to seek asylum, cynically knowing that eventually their cases would be denied. At the same time, the Administration carries out daily deportation flights to Haiti ‘til this day.

Daniel Foote, the ex-diplomat picked by Biden to be his special envoy to Haiti after troubles there escalated, resigned following the incident at the border. Foote said the agents’ actions had undermined his ability to be effective. 

Last month, I asked Foote about his mandates from the Administration during a live streamed community conversation hosted by The Haitian Times. Foote, a former football player at Columbia University, was very candid, unlike most diplomats. He said he didn’t have one. He said that he was chosen because he had worked in Haiti and was sent there to appease the diaspora and the Congressional Black Caucus, who were demanding that the Administration do something to restore order in the perpetually troubled Caribbean nation.

I do hope that Ukraine prevails, and Ukrainians can rebuild their country after the daily pounding from Russian bombs stop. No matter the outcome, Ukrainians will come in droves here and will be welcomed with open arms. I would simply ask that the same courtesy be extended to my compatriots whose homeland is as damaged as the Ukraine.    

It’s the moral thing to do.

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