Illustration by Mell Montezuma.

Op-Ed: America Owes Haitian Migrants Asylum

The American understanding of Haiti is stained with poverty, natural disasters, and political turmoil. As a result, some Americans think Haitians just need to figure it out and stop putting their hands out, while others take a paternalistic approach and think the United States should interfere and “help” even if that is not what Haitians want. These sentiments are bolstered by misrepresentations of Haiti in the media and in academia. 

The production of history is shaped by power; Haitian Scholar, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, wrote about this in his book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Trouillot suggests that our knowledge and understanding of history is limited and incomplete because a lot of what actually happened is left out, intentionally or unintentionally. This has to do with who has the power to write history. Many Americans find it difficult to accept history as it actually happened, which allows them to view current events with a narrow lens and form opinions that lack historical and factual basis.

On September 17, the last of nearly 14,000 asylum-seeking Haitian migrants who had gathered under an international bridge at the border in Del Rio, Texas were forcibly removed.  The injustice at the border became a crisis for President Joe Biden’s administration when both the special envoy for Haiti and the State Department’s senior legal advisor resigned in protest of the treatment of Haitian migrants. 

But let’s make this clear: Biden administration officials will go to sleep at night in their beds. It’s unlikely they will worry where their next meal will come from. The true crisis is this: the United States has created the very conditions that Haitians are fleeing from. The American government has tried over and over to wash their hands clean of responsibility for Haiti’s corruption. Now, President Biden joins the long line of presidents who have turned their back on Haitians when they are facing the consequences of American imperialism. 

They say history is written by the victors, but in the spirit of reframing our understanding of history, I’ll say this: history is written by the colonizers for the colonial gaze. It’s important to keep that in mind when looking at countries like Haiti. And when attempting to understand Haiti’s current state, we have to go way back. 

The history of exploitation in Haiti is extensive and spans hundreds of years. We’ll have to go back all the way to 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola, the island that would eventually become Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Through trade with the Indigenous people, the Taíno, Columbus discovered they had a lot of gold and the following year began colonizing the Caribbean with brutal zeal. The Spanish enslaved the Taíno and within twenty-five years had killed most of the Indigenous people by enslavement, massacre, or disease brought by the colonists. By 1535, the Taíno culture and people were nearly wiped out from the island. In 1697, Spain gave up a portion of the island (now Haiti) to the French. This portion of Haiti became France’s most profitable colony because they forced people into slavery to mass-produce crops. 

With the Taíno people decimated, the French had to look elsewhere for free labor. In less than 100 years, more than 800,000 people were stolen from West Africa and sent to Haiti to work. More than a third of the Atlantic slave trade landed in Haiti. Slavery in Haiti was brutal and severe; enslaved people faced inhumane conditions. Enslaved people in Haiti produced 60% of coffee and forty percent of the sugar exported to Europe in the 1780s. The life expectancy for an enslaved person at the time was twenty-one years. 

In 1791, the enslaved population launched an uprising against the French that sparked a thirteen-year war, resulting in the largest successful revolution of enslaved people in history. When American leaders heard of the revolt, they provided support for the white colonists on the island and allowed them to come to America as refugees with the enslaved people they “owned.” In 1804, Haiti was declared an independent nation, second only to the United States in the Western Hemisphere, the first Black republic and first nation to be run by formerly enslaved people.

What was more remarkable and perhaps unknown to most, the first constitution of Haiti was among the first written national constitutions in the “modern world.” Under their constitution, Haiti was the first nation to permanently outlaw slavery. Out of fear and disbelief, the United States refused to recognize Haiti as an independent sovereign nation for almost sixty years. They feared this would inspire slave insurrections in the States, but they also found it hard to wrap their minds around the fact that the enslaved population had the desire, much less the capacity, to wage a war against the French Army, win, establish their own nation and have a robust constitution. The world was silent around the Haitian Revolution. How is it that a groundbreaking revolution, that yielded more liberty and human rights than the American and French Revolution, heard crickets from the international community then and now, too? It’s probably not good for the narrative of Haiti as a country of poor Black people who can’t govern themselves.  

In 1825, after recognizing Haitian independence, France threatened to invade them again if they wouldn’t reimburse them for the loss of their property—the Haitian people themselves and their labor. Haiti paid 150 million gold francs, the equivalent of twenty-one billion dollars, to France to assure they would never return to slavery. France demanded more money than they knew was possible, causing Haiti to default on the payments and sending the young country into economic decay. Again the world said nothing.

Capitalizing on this silence, in 1915, at the first sign of opportunity, the United States invaded Haiti to advance and promote their economic interests. The U.S. Marines sought to change the Haitian constitution to allow foreigners to own land and also to move Haiti’s financial reserves to the United States. The U.S. Department of State also made the Haitian Senator Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave the head of state against the popular consensus of Haitians. The United States used Dartiguenave to dismantle any attempts to remove U.S. influence in Haiti. During his presidency, the Haitian Army was disbanded, the legislature was dissolved, and less than five percent of the population voted during elections to change the constitution. 

During the occupation the U.S Marines brought infrastructure, ordering the building of roads, schools, and hospitals by Haitians who were forced to work and paid little to no money. For almost twenty years, the United States occupied Haiti and crushed Haitians who opposed it. Fifteen thousand Haitians were killed for several reasons during this time. In 1934, the United States withdrew from Haiti but still controlled the purse strings and maintained heavy influence. 

Haiti was vulnerable and fell under the dictatorship of the Duvaliers from 1957 to1986. They were a father and son who ruled the island under violence and political and social oppression supported by the U.S. government in order to prevent the island from falling to communism. Nearly thirty years of U.S.-backed political corruption, violence, and terror plummeted the island further into extreme poverty, with eighty percent of the population illiterate and out of work. This caused many to flee the island. 

The U.S. government decided that the Haitians who began arriving in the 1980s, seeking asylum, were not political refugees, but rather economic refugees seeking a better life and better jobs. This made them ineligible for asylum. 

During the Carter administration, President Jimmy Carter sought ways to help the Haitian immigrants, making Haitian and Cuban immigrants able to apply for the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program (CHEP) in order for them to be granted asylum only if they were in the country before October 10, 1980. If any Haitians or Cubans attempted to arrive after that they would be charged and deported. 

When Ronald Reagan assumed presidency, he enforced these rules. The Coast Guard intercepted and seized any ships and boats carrying refugees and sent them back to Port-au-Prince in Haiti. While on the boat to the capital, the Coast Guard conducted interviews to possibly grant asylum to some of the Haitian immigrants. Out of 25,000 applications, only twenty-eight were granted asylum.

In 1990, Haiti had what was considered to be a free and fair election Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected as president with sixty-seven percent of the vote. Aristide had a hopeful message for Haiti: to end the ethical and economic battles of the poor. This did not go over well because the country’s rich and elite, who opposed him, were forced to pay high taxes. Aristide was ousted by a military coup led by Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras. As a result, Haiti fell deeper into economic despair causing over 40,000 people to leave the country. 

Many sought to leave the country, fleeing because of poor economic conditions and violence. Over 40,000 Haitians made efforts to leave Haiti, fleeing to the United States. Many of these people fled on makeshift boats, risking their own lives and the lives of their family and children to make it to Florida. Again, there was only silence from the world.

Under Cedras, Haiti sunk further into despair. All the work and promises made by Aristide could not be kept, all those removed from power by the Aristide administration were restored to their previous positions, the army took control over the prisons and many other aspects of Haitian life. The military created a culture of fear and violence, targeting the poor, women, and anyone who stood in their way. Again, tens of thousands of Haitians fled Haiti in hopes of gaining political asylum. 

On May 24, 1992 President George H.W. Bush enacted Executive Order 12807, Interdiction of Illegal Aliens. In this order, he suspended the entry of Haitian immigrants coming by sea to the United States without “necessary documentation, to establish reasonable rules and regulations regarding, and other limitations on, the entry, or attempted entry of aliens into the United States and to repatriate aliens interdicted beyond the territorial sea of the U.S.” The reasoning given by the Bush administration was that the influx of refugees was causing a dangerous and unmanageable situation. After eighteen Haitian people died when their boat capsized on their way to Florida, the Bush administration used the tragedy to halt Haitian immigration under the guise of preventing any more deaths due to the unsafe boat conditions.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that over a thousand Haitians were killed following the coup led by Cedras, so it must have been human rights violations the Haitians were fleeing from. Even so, the Bush administration did not change their mind, and the policy stayed in effect. 

When Bill Clinton was running for president, he rebuked Bush’s decision to turn his back on the Haitian people and said that he would change things if elected. This promise rang hollow when Haitians who arrived by boat continued to be forcibly returned. Clinton clarified that his plan to help Haitians was not to accept them into the country, but rather to improve the conditions that led them to flee in the first place, leaving countless Haitians who hoped a Clinton presidency would improve chances for asylum with few options. 

Shortly after Clinton began his term as president, he made his intention to remove the military faction that ousted Aristide to restore a democratically elected leader and rebuild the economy. On September 19, 1994, with the support of the United Nations Security Council, the United States intervened and Aristide was restored to the presidency. Operation Restore Democracy, as it was called, was lauded as a success by the U.S. government, but at great cost to the Haitian people. 

In exchange for American intervention, Haiti was bound to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment program, which transitioned the country into a market economy. Haiti suffered under these neoliberal policies that privatized national enterprises. The Clinton administration forced the country to lower their tariffs, which allowed cheap American-grown crops to take over the markets. Many rural Haitians worked as farmers for a living. Under these new policies, the Haitian government had to remove the subsidies on things people needed to make a living. Let’s also keep in mind that due to centuries of agricultural exploitation starting from the colonial plantation system, less than one percent of Haiti’s natural forests remain. Haiti is one of the most deforested countries on Earth, causing many types of environmental issues like erosion and species extinction, that ultimately left the soil barren. This created a dependency on imported goods. Haitian businesses could not keep up with the international market. This resulted in a transfer of wealth out of Haitian farmers into the subsidized farmers in the developed world. Many Haitian farmers were pushed off their land.

Haiti has more NGOs per capita than any country in the world, making it the most privatized social service sector in the west. These unelected organizations are unaccountable to the Haitian people, they call the shots and can profit off of the people they are supposed to help. The phrase “NGO” is kind of a misnomer because in Haiti they are seventy percent funded by Northern countries American governments.

In 2010, Haiti was rocked by an earthquake that ended a brief period of prosperity. Thousands died, and those who survived faced famine and disease. After the earthquake, when disaster relief money poured in from various organizations around the world, less than one cent of each dollar went to the Haitian government; meanwhile, NGOs got forty-three cents, and thirty-three cents ended up with the U.S. military. Billions of dollars were donated to the Haitian Earthquake Relief, but because of the lack of transparency and accountability for the NGOs that raised all that money, there’s no way to know how it was actually spent. 

Most of the organizations failed to deliver the long-term promises they made to the Haitian people. Instead, NGOs spent a lot of money on temporary solutions to long-term problems; there were temporary shelters, but no homes, so survivors found themselves homeless again.

The American Red Cross (an NGO) raised $500 million and continued to raise money after they reached their relief goal, but after almost eleven years, people are confused as to where the money went because conditions in Haiti have not improved.

NPR and ProPublica launched an investigation to find out where the Red Cross spent the money. They found “a string of poorly managed projects,” questionable spending and dubious claims of success.” The Red Cross says they provided homes to 130,000, but records show they only built six permanent homes. They over-promised and under-delivered. They didn’t have any real plan for what would actually work for the Haitian people because they did what they thought would generate good publicity, and they were out of touch with the needs and wants of the people they were “helping.”

In the past several years, political unrest, instability, and violence have become the norm and this year is no exception. Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated this summer. Weeks later, the country was struck by another earthquake that killed thousands. 

Haitian people are resilient and strong, but they are exhausted. They are carrying centuries of generational trauma with no end in sight. It’s time for the United States and the entire world to do right by Haiti. It’s time for the people of Haiti to stop paying the price for Liberation.

Bay kou. bliye, pote mak sonje is a Haitian proverb that means, “the culprit forgets, the victim remembers.” It is time for us to be honest about America’s role in destabilizing Haiti as punishment for having the audacity to imagine freedom, and having the courage to fight for it and win. It’s time for us to acknowledge the fact that the United States is largely responsible for the accumulation of migrants at the border in September 2021. Offering Haitian migrants asylum is not just the right thing to do, it is the least that is owed to the Haitian people. 

Still, President Biden decided to send people back to a country they did not destroy, where their future is uncertain and bleak. The situation at the border in Del Rio, Texas may soon be forgotten by the American public and the world. President Biden joins a line of U.S. presidents that upheld the same silence that dismissed and minimized one of the most significant human rights revolutions in history. 

There is no quick fix to the issues Haiti is facing right now. There are centuries of oppression to rectify. One thing is certain, until the people of Haiti are given what they’re owed, we will continue to see the same pattern we’ve seen throughout history. 

If you find yourself wondering why people would leave their home with only a bag, cross through multiple countries in South America, risk getting beaten by border patrol, risk detention in inhumane U.S. immigrant facilities, endure hunger and thirst, and put their lives and the lives of their families in harm’s way, remember this quote from Toussaint Louverture, one of the most famous leaders of the Haitian Revolution: 

“We have known how to face dangers to obtain our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to maintain it.” 

Remember that Haitians fought for thirteen years for freedom, remember that they made makeshift boats and braved the sea, remember they packed up their entire lives. We should not make the same mistake of underestimating what people will do for freedom and what they will risk to attain it. The silence must be broken.

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Frederique Desrosiers is the policy organizer at Chicago Votes. This is her first time writing for the Weekly.

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