As a first generation Haitian-American, I grew up surrounded by proud reminders of the country from which I descended: paintings of Jacmel beaches, kompa music from bands like T-Vice and Tabou Combo, cuisine like diri kole (red beans and rice), griot (fried pork), akra (taro fritter), bannann peze (fried plantains) and soup joumou (squash soup) served on Haitian Independence Day, which is January 1st.
My parents instilled a deep pride in our heritage as grandchildren of the first Black country in the Western Hemisphere to free itself from brutal colonialism. That same pride that makes it hard to fathom the way the United States, the country of my own birth, systemically mistreats wave after wave of Haitian immigrants who seek to create similarly proud households here as my immigrant parents did.
The nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America reported that by February of this year, the U.S. government had deported some 20,000 Haitian migrants since the beginning of the Biden Administration. While sending that many people back to a country ranked as the poorest in the Western hemisphere sounds unjust, it represents a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who have reached the U.S. in recent decades only to be deported with little to no due process. Many of them, already fleeing poverty, violence or both, were abused by U.S. authorities along the way.
Back in September, nearly 15,000 mostly Haitian immigrants were camped under a bridge at the Del Rio, Texas border. Nearly 30,000 migrants have passed through since last Sept. 9, according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Photos of border patrol agents on horses forcefully preventing immigrants from crossing the border—visuals I can only associate with slavery and the roles of slave patrols—have gone viral. President Joe Biden called the border patrol agents’ actions “horrible,” but his administration has done little to bring them to heel.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 2,000 Haitian nationals were deported to Haiti on 17 flights without an opportunity to plead their case as asylum-seekers. Nearly 8,000 voluntarily returned to Mexico. Five thousand more are in U.S. custody being processed for immigration removal proceedings. Another 12,400 will have a chance to present their case to live in America under the asylum law in front of an immigration judge.
All this has happened as Haiti struggles with rampant gang violence, kidnappings, the political fallout from last July’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and destruction from another earthquake that left thousands dead and injured. After all of this, why hasn’t the U.S. opened its arms to the Haitian people?
Fully considering that question requires contrasting how this country treats immigrants from other lands with how it treats Haitians. For decades Cuban defectors were allowed to enter the U.S. under the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which ended in 2017 under the Obama administration. This policy allowed undocumented Cubans, who reached U.S. soil, were able to reside and receive their residency after a year living in the U.S., all while Haitians were continually expelled without question.
More recently, the Biden Administration in April implemented a “fast” and “streamlined” plan for Ukrainian refugees, who are fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country. The plan will allow nearly 100,000 Ukrainians to enter the U.S. in the coming months, though on a temporary basis and only as long as they have a financial sponsor in the country. Nearly 23,000 Ukrainians arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in March and April and have been processed for entry.
Cuban immigrants fled repression to establish communities in South Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. Ukrainians are fleeing an active war zone. Haitian migrants are fleeing a country that lacks infrastructure, medicine, a stable economy or political system and adequate housing. The major difference is that most of the Haitian immigrants are Black while most of the Ukranians and Cubans before them are not.
American compassion for Ukrainians, 5 million of whom have been displaced since Russia’s invasion of their country began, is understandable. The Ukrainian people are in need of America’s help as well and they are receiving it, which is the right thing for our country to do.
But that same largess is due to the Haitian people, who come from a country whose history includes 500 slaves who joined the French force to help fight against the British in the Revolutionary War in 1779. Our heritage is not just one of repeat trauma, it is intractably linked to the freedoms enjoyed by most Americans, and by those from other nations who wish to enjoy them as well. Unfortunately, many immigrants from other countries continue to skip the line and enter the U.S. while Haitians wait for a turn that often never comes.