How Biden Can Handle Haiti Better Than His Predecessors

The current crisis on the border is a product of centuries of US imperialism. Righting these wrongs would require a transformative change of course from President Biden.
An MSNBC report on images of Haitian migrants being whipped by Border Patrol on horseback.

An MSNBC report on images of Haitian migrants being whipped by Border Patrol on horseback.

Jossif Ezekilov is a gender and foreign policy expert and Rantt Contributor. Jossif works across a variety of fields – including international development, public health, gender policy, and journalism – and analyzes complex issues that impact the world’s most vulnerable people. He also writes on a variety of issues, including, foreign affairs, civil rights, US politics, countering disinformation.

Many have been shocked at the images and videos last week of US Border Patrol Agents whipping and beating Haitian migrants at the southern border. Indeed, the sight of law enforcement officers on horseback beating back Black people for the crime of searching for a better life provided a real-time reminder that the history of slavery and oppression upon which this country is founded remains its status quo today.

The Biden administration, while expressing dismay over the agents’ behavior and temporarily suspending the horse patrol at fault, has nonetheless continued its expulsion of Haitian migrants on the southern border. White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki confirmed in a press conference Wednesday that migrants will continue to be expelled under a US policy known as Title 42. This policy was enacted by the Trump administration to stem immigration, ostensibly as a measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The policy was reportedly the brainchild of notable white nationalist promoter and former White House adviser Stephen Miller.

However, according to the Human Rights Watch, Title 42 is illegal and has been applied only to migrants crossing over land borders, many of whom are Black, Indigenous, and/or Latinx. Furthermore, the international NGO argues, the policy has no public health basis and may have even contributed to the spread of the virus. Last week, a judge blocked the Biden administration’s use of Title 42, a decision which the Justice Department is now appealing.

The administration’s policies have also exacerbated the harm faced by asylum seekers and may even violate international laws and principles. Filippo Grandi, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees, confirmed this in his condemnation of the mass expulsions and of Title 42 specifically. The expulsions, Grandi said, are “inconsistent with international norms and may constitute refoulement”, which constitutes the illegal practice of forcibly removing and returning people to places where they may face imminent harm.

Haitian migrants – fleeing from a country ravaged by political instability following a presidential assassination in July, followed by further calamity due to a major earthquake and a tropical storm later this summer – would certainly fit this definition. Normally, Customs and Border Protection agents are supposed to conduct non-refoulement screenings before ordering an expulsion of any migrant at the border. However, Human Rights Watch claims that many of the more than 600,000 total expulsions ordered under Title 42 since March 2020 were done without such screenings, leaving asylum seekers to face dire consequences upon being turned away including “sexual assault, torture, and death.”

On Thursday, US special envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote resigned two months after taking on the job in lieu of the deportations, stating (per the Associated Press):

“I will not be associated with the United States [sic] inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs to daily life,” he wrote. “Our policy approach to Haiti remains deeply flawed…”

Immigration rights advocates have also expressed their dismay over the Biden administration’s handling of the situation, as well as a fomenting crisis of surging migrant numbers at the border. Reports of the government looking to build migrant facilities at Guantanamo Bay (which the administration denies) have further added to the ire.

The decision to continue these expulsions using Trump era policies is striking. President Biden promised protections for asylum seekers and committed to more humane immigration policies following the overt human rights violations of the Trump administration, which included forced family separation and caging of children. And yet, Biden’s stance towards Haitian migrants is notable less for its harshness and more so for its historical consistency with US policy towards the country, one which has contributed directly to the suffering and oppression of the Haitian people since the country’s independence.

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Haiti: A Victim Of US Racist Imperialism

It would be short-sighted to view the Haitian migrants at the US border as merely victims of a calamitous summer in an already impoverished country. The tragedy of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, is as old as colonialism itself and has been perpetuated by every American leader since the Founding Fathers.

The country’s liberation from France in 1804 marked the first time in colonial history that a slave revolt led to the founding of an independent state, and one led by Black former slaves at that. This fact was not lost on the young US government, much of which was made up of slave owners. Indeed, it sparked fear that Haiti’s revolution may influence other enslaved people to seek freedom.

Thomas Jefferson – author of the US Declaration of Independence and a strong proponent of revolutions in non-Black countries – notably sought to deter the Haitian revolution and its subsequent independence. Aided by fellow slave owners, the Jefferson administration oversaw an embargo of the country, and aided France in extracting payments from Haiti (as much as $21 billion in today’s currency) for having the audacity to liberate themselves from their enslavement.

The US did not formally recognize Haiti until the Civil War, and its exploitation of the country continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in the form of aggressive trade and economic policy, and military intervention. The US invaded Haiti in 1915 to secure its economic interests, and occupied the country until 1934. During this time, the US formed Haiti’s national army, which would go on to inflict numerous human rights abuses under the leadership of a series of dictators throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

Throughout this time, waves of refugees from the country sought refuge in the US. The so-called “boat people” (due to the fact that many fled the country on rafts across the Caribbean Sea) often incited the worst of America’s ever-present xenophobic fears of migrants flooding its borders. The largest of these waves, some 40,000 people, occurred after a military coup in 1991 that overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Many of the refugees perished at sea, while most of those that survived were taken to Guantanamo Bay. Under the orders of President George H.W. Bush, Haitians were returned to Haiti, in violation of the Geneva Convention.

President Clinton criticized this policy during his 1992 presidential campaign and vowed to restore Aristide and democracy to Haiti. However, he too continued the policy of returning refugees, even as police and military forces slaughtered people on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital.

The cycle of undermining Haitian sovereignty has remained a bipartisan one throughout recent history. Clinton and George W Bush share much in common in their policies towards Haiti. While they both, as former presidents, famously led the drive for aid for recovery efforts after the disastrous 2010 earthquake, they were also the reason the earthquake was so destructive in the first place during their presidencies. Both presidents sent US troops following coups in the country, while also perpetuating Haitian dependence on the West through unfair trade practices and ineffective foreign aid policies.

The election of the first Black president in the US sparked hopes that the oppressive relationship might end. Indeed, Obama’s condemnation of US interventionism seemed a step in the right direction. However, while the administration led global recovery efforts after the earthquake, it did little to further support the country and its fragile democracy. Obama’s ambivalence towards Haiti’s democracy drew criticism by many in the country for complicity in its subsequent demise.

Things worsened under President Trump, who famously deemed Haiti (along with all majority-Black nations) a “shithole country”, and sought to ensure its residents would not be welcome on US soil.

Will The Biden Administration Break With 200 Years Of Haitian Oppression?

President Biden at the United Nations General Assembly – September 21, 2021. (The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

President Biden at the United Nations General Assembly – September 21, 2021. (The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The images of border agents whipping Haitian migrants is thus less a horrific one-off event, rather than a real-life depiction of the longstanding history of US oppression of Haiti. In continuing Trump-era policies such as Title 42, Biden is therefore continuing in his footsteps, and the footsteps of all US leaders who have contributed to Haiti’s demise.

The Biden administration may defend its actions as necessary to stem the most recent tide of migration to its borders. However, at the current moment, while Biden’s immigration policies certainly aren’t as cruel as Trump’s, the claims of a moral high ground on immigration for both itself and the Democratic Party remain questionable at best. Reclaiming it will require transformative action that no government, Democratic or Republican, has ever endeavored to this point.

Certainly ending practices such as Title 42 and other measures, while also increasing support and services to migrants, as well as their host countries is necessary. However, true change would require more action than just increasing foreign aid budgets.

Indeed Haiti is the best proof of this. The so-called “Nation of NGOs”, Haiti boasts the highest per capita rate of aid organizations, numbering about 10,000 of them. The current state of the country is a damning repudiation of the international development system which Western countries boast as the true path to alleviating the poverty and oppression they themselves have created.

Indeed, truly addressing the issue of migrants on the border will require the US to acknowledge that it is directly responsible for their plight. Almost all of these people are coming from countries that have, like Haiti, been negatively impacted by US interventionist and neo-colonial policies. No president has even been able to even give a verbal acknowledgment of this fact (President Obama has been close).

The reason for this is that accepting responsibility would entail taking accountability for wrongdoing. This is something the US is loath to do, especially since it would involve substantial financial costs. In the case of Haiti especially, this would include outright reparations, given its role (along with France) in deliberately crippling the country economically at the outset of its independence and every day thereafter.

Such ideas are taboo in the halls of Congress; too radical, too untraditional, truly un-American. But if taking accountability and truly helping others are not responsibilities deemed worthy of the American government, then what is?

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Opinion // Haiti / Human Rights / Immigration / Joe Biden / United Nations