Blog: The US Owes a Debt to Haiti and to Haitian Migrants

The scenes of Haitian migrants being herded like cattle and whipped like slaves by Border Patrol agents on horseback at the US-Mexico border at Del Rio, Texas are typical of how Haitians have been treated since the 1804 Haitian revolution. Haiti is the first nation in the world to overthrow the shackles of slavery and the Haitian people have been punished for the victory ever since.

Over 14,000 Haitians have been targeted for deportation back to Haiti where a multitude of crises are rampant—rising coronavirus rates, a political crisis due to the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that affected more than 800,000 people, and a tropical storm that left almost 2,000 Haitians dead and thousands without shelter.

The Biden Administration has used Title 42 as the pretext to detain and deport thousands of Haitians that have amassed at the US-Mexico border seeking asylum and humanitarian relief. Last year, the Center for Disease Control under the Trump administration issued a public health order under Title 42 which sanctioned the immediate deportation of unauthorized border crossers and asylum seekers because of fear of COVID-19 infections.  As the removal of migrants is labeled an “expulsion” and not a “deportation”, they have no due process claims and do not have the right to a hearing before an immigration judge.

This isn’t the first time that the US government has used a pandemic to justify the detention and deportation of Haitian migrants. In 1991, during the AIDS pandemic, Haitians were wrongly stigmatized as one of the main vectors for the spread of the virus and hundreds of Haitian migrants were locked up in Guantanamo Bay prisons until the practice was declared unconstitutional in 1993.  As executive director of the San Francisco Black Coalition on AIDS at the time, I joined with the Haiti Action Committee to demand their release. We were successful then and immigrant rights and civil rights organizations in the US intend to continue this fight today.

This fight for the human rights of Haitians at the border is only the latest chapter in an ongoing battle to provide solidarity for the Haitian people. The first Haitian “boat people” made the precarious journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the US in 1972. This was in response to the brutal dictatorships of François Duvalier (1957-1971) and then his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-1986), both backed by the US government. From that time to now, Haitian refugees and asylum seekers fleeing repression are interdicted in the high seas and detained, denied entry, and summarily deported.

The US government was implicated in two coup d’états that ousted the democratically elected Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991 and in 2004 that led to increased migration from Haiti. To this day, the US government has supported government repression, and extralegal violence and economic exploitation of the Haitian people and has denied their claims for asylum routinely.

But let’s go back to the beginning. The Haitian revolution against the ruthless French slavocracy marked a turning point in the abolitionist movement in the Caribbean and the Americas. The US, France and Canada refused to recognize the new republic and blockaded its ports to stop its lucrative trade with the rest of the world. France forced the new government to pay “reparations” for the loss of its enslaved “property.” And from 1915 to 1934, US Marines invaded Haiti and dominated the country at the behest of US corporate interests.

Haitians have been permanently categorized as “The Other” and have been told repeatedly that they don’t belong in our country and don’t deserve their independence in their own country. Haiti deserves its freedom from US interference in its economic and political life. And Haitian migrants deserve due process and humanitarian relief. I am joining with the Haitian Bridge Alliance, the Haiti Action Committee, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, UndocuBlack and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration in calling for an end to the deportations, a repeal of Title 42, and a return to the implementation of asylum and refugee laws and treaties. The United States government owes a debt to the Haitian people. It’s time it pays up.

Gerald Lenoir is the founding executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (2006-2014) and the former executive director of the San Francisco Black Coalition on AIDS (1988-1995). He is currently a board member of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and a strategy analyst at the Othering and Belonging Institute, UC Berkeley.


Published by the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley

Editor’s note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.

Gerald Lenoir