The Biden administration is continuing a long history of exclusionary policy against Haitian asylum seekers.
The images left many sickened and outraged: Border Patrol agents on horseback hounding Haitian migrants near the US-Mexico border, more than 14,000 of whom were camped under the Del Rio bridge on September 19. The uniformed men swung their long horse reins — which many interpreted as whips — to keep the migrants from crossing into Texas. In one photo, an agent grabbed the T-shirt of a migrant, while another shouted in a video, “Get out now! Back to Mexico!”
Condemnation of the agents’ behavior was swift, with advocates drawing parallels to slave patrols, or the white men on horses who whipped enslaved people in cotton fields. But inhumane treatment of Black migrants, particularly Haitian migrants, is not new; it’s closely linked to the history of immigrant detention in the United States.
Haitians have sought asylum at US borders for decades, but every presidential administration since the 1970s has treated Haitians differently than other migrant groups, rejecting asylum claims, holding them longer in detention, and making it harder for them to settle down in safety. In the early 1990s, for example, when the United States detained more than 12,000 Haitian refugees at Guantanamo indefinitely, Immigration and Naturalization Services denied the vast majority of them asylum.
According to Carl Lindskoog, the author of Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System, the United States’ inhumane treatment of Haitian refugees, whom the country has often cast as criminals, unskilled, diseased, and poor, has been a central part of the immigration detention story.
“Policies were specifically designed to deter Haitians from coming in. These policies became the prototype for what became a global system of migrant incarceration,” says Lindskoog, a professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey.
The current wave of Haitian migrants is fleeing a country that has experienced compounding crises. This summer, Haiti suffered a magnitude 7.2 earthquake and tropical storm that killed an estimated 2,200, with thousands more missing or injured. The July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse worsened violence and instability.
Haitians are still reeling from the January 2010 earthquake that affected 3 million people, causing irreparable damage to homes and infrastructure. Gangs have since risen in power, leading many Haitians to live in fear for their lives and families.
As Lindskoog says, what Haitians are experiencing is the kind of calamity that asylum was designed for in the period following World War II: “It is their legal right to seek asylum.”
However, some migrants hoping for asylum are instead being chased down and shut out at the border — images show them being removed from airplanes in Port-au-Prince with their belongings scattered on the airport’s tarmac — while an undisclosed number are being allowed into the United States. Biden’s decision to fly Haitians back to deadly circumstances, under a Trump-era policy, underscores the United States’ longstanding animus toward Black migrants.
I talked to Lindskoog about the history of Haitian migrant detention in the US and why America has consistently rolled out harsh policies for Haitians, without displaying compassion for immigrants from the embattled Caribbean nation. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
This week, images and video of Border Patrol agents mounted on horseback rounding up Haitian migrants at the southern border sparked national outrage. The images depicted officials using horse reins, which many likened to whips, to control the movement of the Haitians. Can you tell me what came to mind when you saw those images?
The images are horrible. I agree with everyone who said it was so terribly resonant of the long history of anti-Black racism and racial violence. Those images bring a lot of strands of history together, from why the Border Patrol was created, to how violent that institution has been, to how our modern policing system comes from the enforcement of slavery. And then there is how our immigration system has been criminalized and merged into our criminal justice system, both of which have anti-Black elements. What’s happening at the border is horrifying and fits into the long intersecting history of anti-Black, anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Haitian exclusion.
Let’s talk more about the Border Patrol’s racist history, which has been well documented and began with its formation in the early 1920s as a kind of brotherhood with KKK members and racist Texas Rangers. Can you tell me more about how these origins were likely at play in Del Rio with Haitian migrants?
There is a really good book about this by Kelly Lytle Hernández called Migra! A History of The U.S. Border Patrol, in which she describes how the creation of the US Border Patrol in 1924 happened amidst a much broader anti-immigrant moment. There was the national Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 that placed new racist immigration quotas and exclusions as part of American immigration policy.
It was the gatekeeping mechanism at the time for keeping out who we don’t want to come across on American shores. [Author’s note: For example, the law favored migration from Northern and Western European countries and decreased the annual immigration cap from 350,000 to 165,000.]
Simultaneously, the Border Patrol — which evolved out of a longer history of anti-migrant, anti-Mexican white supremacist violence along the US borderlands — was introduced to police to control the movement of Mexican migrants in particular, but also other people who might cross the southern border.
Yes, many people tend to only think of Mexican migrants trying to cross the southern border. But there are people from Caribbean countries taking long, arduous treks across water and through numerous nations and terrains to seek American asylum. For example, reports have suggested that many of the more than 14,000 Haitian migrants who were camped under the Del Rio International Bridge had actually left Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and had stopped in places like Brazil and Chile but have been on the move to Mexico due to various circumstances. What kinds of conditions have these migrants faced in the past 10 or so years?
From what I’ve learned from organizations like the Haitian Bridge Alliance and from reporters who have gone down to places like Brazil to report on conditions, especially after the economic downturn and other crises in Brazil, is that they couldn’t stay there. So they went to Chile and didn’t have the greatest reception there and sometimes faced a harrowing journey through jungles and across borders.
There’s a gigantic immigration detention facility in southern Mexico, where Mexico does a lot of the dirty work of the United States by detaining people who’ve crossed the border with Guatemala. If they got out of there, and were able to make it through the dangerous terrain up to the US-Mexico border, that is a major act of survival because of everything that they had to face in coming so many miles and facing so many police forces, prisons, and natural challenges. And then to see the images and read the reports that they’re living in that large encampment now, and just trying to get food and water and then to face that violent reprisal by the US Border Patrol — it’s just unimaginable.
And how does this modern-day situation compare to the kind of treatment Haitian migrants have traditionally received over the past couple of decades, whether they’re entering through the southern border or trying to get to Florida’s shores by boat?
They have, for most of history, been met with exclusion. During the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, most Haitians were coming on student visas or tourist visas, and then if they didn’t have authorization to stay, they were overstaying their visa. There were also a number of political exiles. So they weren’t really on the radar and seen as a big problem. They were establishing themselves in neighborhoods in New York primarily, and in Boston and elsewhere in Canada.
It’s really in the early to mid-1970s when the so-called “boat people,” which is a different demographic — more working-class, urban, displaced Haitians — started to come by boats and ships, trying to make it to American shores. When they tried to put in asylum claims was when they started to be more on the radar of American authorities.
That triggered this racist backlash, especially in South Florida, because it was at a moment when there was already a racist backlash to the civil rights movement. So to have all these poor unauthorized migrants who don’t speak English, that are Black, showing up, there’s this really racist reaction.
South Floridians started to put pressure on their local officials, who then turned to Washington, and there was a very concerted effort to keep Haitians out. The Carter administration introduced something called the Haitian Program — a punishing set of policies designed to deter Haitians from coming in. And if they were already here, it tried to keep them out of the mainstream population. That meant putting them in detention facilities and local jails, basically denying them carte blanche their asylum claims and just sending them back.
There was a big legal challenge in 1980, Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti, where Haitian migrants and their advocates got a federal judge named James Lawrence King to recognize in a ruling that this practice was not only discriminatory but also racist. Haitians were being excluded because they were Black and because they were Haitian. King overturned the Haitian Program, but the Carter administration worked to circumvent it like subsequent administrations would.
When the Reagan administration came into power, they introduced a new Haitian detention program and the policy of interdiction, in which Coast Guard cutters would intercept boats of Haitian asylum seekers before they could even reach land and send them back, often to violence and death in Haiti. That process continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
The Biden administration’s mass denial of asylum claims, which they’re doing by invoking Title 42 — a 2020 Trump administration coronavirus policy that has been used to expel more than a million migrants without hearings before an immigration judge — is not something new. This is something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have done, and it very much fits with the long history of the US government denying the legitimacy of Haitians’ asylum claims and sending them to a dangerous and often deadly situation.
It seems presidents of all backgrounds and in both parties have engaged in harm toward Haiti and Haitian migrants. US involvement in Haiti has often led to periods of instability there, but then the US has at times in the past turned around and interned Haitians at Guantanamo.
The coup d’état against Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, happened when George H.W. Bush was in power, and he sort of paid lip service to the illegitimate military government that was ruling after Aristide was put out of office. But Bush refused to accept Haitian asylum seekers and did everything the US government could to keep Haitians from being able to seek safe haven, even though the human rights atrocities after the coup were well-documented.
There was another set of legal challenges and legal battles in the courts to give Haitians asylum, some of which were somewhat successful, but that’s the period when Guantanamo was first established as an offshore prison to try to serve as a buffer for people whom you don’t even want to allow to get to American shores to seek asylum. And Haitians were the first Guantanamo detainees.
When Bill Clinton was running for president and trying to defeat George H.W. Bush, he promised to reverse that. A lot of Americans and people around the world were indignant about the Bush administration’s treatment of Haitians. “Of course we’re gonna let Haitians in,” Clinton said. But after he was elected, he reversed course and turned his back on the Haitians and said, “Well, we don’t want to trigger another humanitarian crisis by taking people because then more people will go out on this perilous journey across the ocean.” He was trying to invoke humanitarian reasons for still denying people the right to seek asylum.
Meanwhile, more Haitians filled up Guantanamo, some of whom were HIV positive and had AIDS. That began another chapter in what one scholar calls the carceral quarantine of Haitians for medical reasons. This was similar to what’s happening today because Title 42 is built on the basis of public health mandates to exclude people. While many people were forcibly returned from Guantanamo to Haiti, a number of those Haitians who remained at Guantanamo were able to make it to the United States after intense political and legal struggle.
There’s historically also been a difference between how Cuban migrants and Haitian migrants have been treated, which many scholars point out is based on skin color. Is it useful to compare the plight of various migrant groups trying to make it into the United States?
I think it is useful. I think there are a lot of interesting polarities in the experience of Haitians and Cubans in how they come to the United States. The best example of course was the summer of 1980 when more than 100,000 Cubans came by boat seeking asylum, and so did approximately 15,000 Haitians.
The Refugee Act of 1980 had just passed, but it didn’t have clear instructions for how to treat vast numbers of asylum seekers, so initially, both Cubans and Haitians were placed in refugee camps on military bases across the United States. But pretty quickly, Cubans, for the most part, were released and allowed to be with family members and the Cuban community. Haitians languished in detention much longer.
For the Haitians that came after, a special piece of legislation was passed to adjust their status known as the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Act of 1980. But the Haitians that came after the act were again treated just like the ones that came before — excluded and barred. Cubans never suffered the same kind of exclusion or mass detention that Haitians did, despite the fact that they’re both coming from Caribbean nations and seeking asylum.
How do these exclusionary policies translate to how Haitians are treated once in America?
For the Haitian community and Haitian migrants in particular, they’ve repeatedly been targeted as disease carriers, which historically has also been a racialized notion not only of the foreign-born but especially of the nonwhite foreign-born. In the 1970s, their incarceration exclusion was sometimes justified on the basis that they were carrying tuberculosis. In the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, it became the notion that they were carrying AIDS. But Haitians said all along that singling them out is discriminatory because they aren’t any more likely to be diseased than other people. It is racialized stigmatization.
The same thing goes for criminalization. The Black Alliance for Just Immigration has documented how Black immigrants are much more likely to be incarcerated, how they spend much more time in detention, and how their asylum cases, deportation cases, and immigration appeals are much more likely to be denied. That’s part of how immigration enforcement blends into the criminal justice system and policing — now that there’s a criminalized racial immigration system, often a migrant’s first point of contact in this country is with law enforcement.
A lot of municipalities and localities have an agreement between their local law enforcement in the immigration system that they will refer any unauthorized or undocumented person or someone with some kind of immigration issue over to the immigration system. They then get put into the immigration system based on some racialized reading about who they are and are disproportionately likely to be detained or deported.
So it’s clear that Haitian migrants are particularly demonized and criminalized, but I also think another element to their story is erasure. It feels like not many people know about this history. Even in the past decade or so, conversations about immigrants tend to leave out Black immigrants in general. Research from the nonprofit organization RAICES found that 44 percent of families that ICE locked up during the pandemic last year were Haitian and that this information was underreported.
A February 2021 report from the American Immigration Council stated that at one detention center in 2020, nearly half of the families threatened with family separation were Black and originated from Haiti, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, and Afro-Latino communities in Latin America. What does the erasure signify?
Black migrants, Black immigrants, and Black asylum seekers are often left out of discussions of immigration, immigrant rights, and immigrant justice. In the media, when we are having these big national debates, we tend to think more about Central Americans and other Latin Americans, not the Caribbean so much. And, of course, in recent years, there were large numbers of displaced people coming from Central America — and that’s part of why that drew the attention.
But it’s also true that Haitians only appear from time to time in conversation, and it’s not understood that their experiences track really closely to a lot of other asylum seekers.
Even with the current attention being paid to the treatment of Haitian migrants, it’s still unclear how the United States is going to decide which Haitians they allow in and which they don’t. The Biden administration’s initial response was to schedule seven flights a day to send Haitians at the border back. But then the Associated Press reported that Haitians were being released to El Paso, Texas; Arizona; and other places for 60 days before they’d have to appear at an immigration office. There’s not much transparency about how these decisions are being made.
The Biden administration is under intense political pressure from different sides and from different interests, just as previous administrations have been. The administration is trying to maintain its image as being very different from the Trump administration, especially when it comes to racism and anti-immigrant nativist xenophobia, but I don’t believe that his policies have yet proven to be very different.
[Vice President] Kamala Harris can stand there and say she is horrified, and [press secretary] Jen Psaki can say the same. But the whole reason the inhumane treatment of Haitians is happening is because the Biden administration is continuing the Trump administration’s illegitimate and unjustified use of Title 42, which is a way of denying the asylum process to which Haitians and all other people are entitled, by both our own federal law and international law.
US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorcas made a strong statement to migrants saying that if they come here illegally, they’re going to be removed, that they are going to fail. But it’s not illegal to claim asylum. It is a legal right to claim asylum. Migrants have to have a legitimate fear of past or future persecution in their home country on the basis of a number of categories — if they can prove that, then they’ve proven their asylum case and are supposed to be allowed to stay.
Many activists have used the phrase “Haitians are owed.” There’s this idea that the world owes Haiti and has played a role in its plight. What do you think about this in the context of what took place at the border this week?
We do all owe Haitians for the Haitian Revolution, which successfully ended in 1804 and was the most sweeping human rights revolution in all of human history. Haitian liberation, first from slavery and then from colonialism and achieving independence, was a victory for all enslaved, oppressed people, including Black Americans.
In many ways, Haitians, sadly, because they’ve so often been targeted by racism and injustice, have kept fighting in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s in this country and in others. Their determination to liberate themselves and other people they’ve struggled alongside continues to be a model for how all incarcerated, enslaved, and otherwise abused people can find their liberation. That’s one major reason we owe a debt of gratitude to Haitians.
That’s even more reason to fight alongside them for justice today at the US-Mexico border and wherever they encounter racism and discrimination.
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The Biden administration is continuing a long history of exclusionary policy against Haitian asylum seekers.