Brooklyn resident and Haitian immigrant Dilede* walked from Chile to Mexico to cross the U.S. border after having to flee Haiti’s gang violence. The 42-year-old mother and former merchant who now works at a local supermarket in Brooklyn said that she was robbed by gangs in Haiti. She closed her businesses and moved to Chile for safety.
Dilede said that she worked in Chile for five years before having to leave because of pay cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, an inability to gain her legal residence despite applying repeatedly. With her partner and her nine-year-old son, she began the arduous journey to the US-Mexico border in search of a better life.
“The route was very difficult. We went through a lot. We climbed mountains. We crossed rivers. We spent about five days sleeping in the woods. From Colombia to Panama, we were crossing rivers that are very dangerous [and] deep.”
She said that they felt better after entering Mexico because they were finally able to eat food. After 15 days there, they took a bus to the border.
“When we got to the Texas border, they locked us into a place that looked like a jail. They gave us a little food, but we could not shower. The conditions were terrible.”
Dilede is one of the Haitian asylum seekers that were allowed to enter the U.S. and is now living in Brooklyn NY with the resettlement assistance of Haitian-American organizations like DREP (Disaster Relief and Emergency Preparedness Committee). DREP began as an initiative within Little Haiti BK, a community service and advocacy organization in the ‘Little Haiti’ neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Jackson Rockingster, the chair of Little Haiti BK, helped organize a march on Washington D.C. on Wednesday to demand that Haitian migrants like Dilede be allowed to apply for asylum.
“Haiti has been ravaged by political [and] economic unrest, and natural disasters. You should at least afford the people of Haiti some kind of humanitarian parole because it meets all the criteria. These are the most vulnerable people. No U.S. diplomat wants to go to Haiti. When they go, they go with armed escorts. They fear for their safety. So imagine for the rest of the population,” Rockingster said.
Rampant gang violence, kidnappings and political persecution have worsened since the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in July. A 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people and Tropical Storm Grace ravaged the country in August. These recent crises have deepened already dire economic and political conditions in the country.
Demonstrators protested outside the White House on Wednesday, and then marched to the U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement office. They criticized the Biden-Harris administration for continuing Trump-era enforcement of Title 42, a public health law used to enforce immediate expulsions because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Advocates are demanding an end to Title 42 deportations, asylum or humanitarian parole for Haitian migrants who qualify, permanent legal residency (a green card) and a path to citizenship for Haitians already living in the U.S. under temporary protected status (TPS). There were also calls for the U.S. to end a pattern of foreign intervention that supports authoritarian and corrupt political leaders and to instead bolster civil society groups.
Title 42 deportations and the Del Rio, TX crisis
In September, mass media coverage drew national attention to a makeshift camp in Del Rio, TX where thousands of mostly Haitian migrants were living under a bridge after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo of border agents on horseback chasing Haitian migrants drew widespread public criticism, including from President Biden.
Yet the Biden administration deported nearly 4,000 Haitian migrants in nine days as they cleared the Del Rio, TX encampment. Most of the migrants were expelled based on Title 42, according to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas during a speech in Del Rio.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic and a critical migration challenge. We continue to exercise the Centers for Disease Control’s Title 42 authority… to protect the American public, to protect the communities along the border, and to protect the migrants themselves”, said Mayorkas.
Haitian advocates, and organizations like Physicians for Human Rights, say that Title 42 does not protect public health and it is unevenly applied to people entering the country. Since there is not a consistent policy of COVID-19 testing and quarantine, it allows for arbitrary use and racial discrimination in Title 42 enforcement and deportations.
The U.S. Special Envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote resigned, calling the deportation policy “deeply flawed” and “inhumane” given the dangerous conditions in Haiti. He also called it “counterproductive,” saying migration surges will grow at the border.
Calls for asylum and humanitarian parole
To be eligible for asylum in the U.S., migrants must first be refugees, i.e. those who have fled their country and are unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. To apply for asylum, a refugee must already be present in the U.S. or must arrive at a U.S. entry point. They then have a year to apply.
Gang violence and political persecution are often related in Haiti because of political leaders who are secretly involved with gangs’ illegal drug trade and arms trafficking. There are also reports of politicians paying gang members to be paramilitary forces enforcing their interests in local neighborhoods.
Advocates for Haitian migrants point to this gang violence and politically motivated persecution as conditions that could make them eligible for asylum.
Yet many of the migrants like Dilede and those who arrived at the Del Rio, TX encampment have been living outside of Haiti for years in neighboring Latin American countries. Some fled Haiti years ago, including after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
“There is a chance that they can get asylum, but their cases are a lot more complicated in that they have resettled in these locations like Brazil and Chile, [but] they’re facing a lot of racism and persecution there as well. Maybe not to the extent of the political distress and the danger that they were facing in Haiti, but the danger is still real for these people in these countries. So that may be a basis for them to apply for asylum,” said Sherbune Paul, president of the NY chapter of the Haitan-Ameican Association of Lawyers in (HALA-NY).
Stephania Dalia, HALA-NY’s immigration chair, says there is a cultural sensitivity that it is important for attorneys to bring to these asylum cases. For example, she has discovered that the Haitian migrants often minimize violence to which they have been subjected. They dismiss or overlook important details that could help their asylum case.
“It feels a lot like when I’m speaking to women who have been in abusive relationships. I often find myself spending a lot of time trying to help them understand they were in fact victims of abuse. And what I’m finding with my people is that they are like, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, there’s always protest. Of course, they tried to beat me up, and he attacked me with a machete. But [they] do that to everybody,” said Dalia.
If a migrant is not eligible for asylum, advocates point to parole as another possible option. Humanitarian parole allows for any immigrant to apply for temporary entry into the U.S. because of a “compelling emergency” and an “urgent humanitarian reason.” It is sparingly granted and cannot be used to avoid normal processes for legally entering the U.S. and seeking residency.
There is also a different parole program called The Haitian Family Reunification Parole (HFRP) Program, but it is currently inactive. HFRP allows U.S. citizens and green card holders to apply for parole for a family member in Haiti to join them in the U.S. US Citizenship and Immigration Services reversed a Trump-era decision to end the program. Yet the HFRP is by “invitation only” and the USCIS has not resumed distributing them.
Temporary Protected Status
There are about 155,000 Haitians living in the U.S. under temporary protected status (TPS) or who are eligible for it.
Haiti is one of 12 countries whose nationals have been designated eligible for TPS because of ongoing armed conflict, natural disaster, an epidemic or “other extraordinary or temporary conditions.” Haiti was first designated for TPS under the Obama administration after the 2010 earthquake.
In May, DHS Secretary Mayorkas announced TPS extension for Haiti through February 2023. Yet it only applies to Haitians who were living in the U.S. before July 29. During his remarks in Del Rio, Mayorkas warned migrants against dangerous journey across the U.S.-Mexico under the illusion that they can apply for TPS.
Calls for change in U.S. foreign policy on Haiti
In January, the Biden administration announced $75.5 million in aid to Haiti for a wide range of assistance that include health, democratic governance, electoral and agricultural development support. It also pointed out that the U.S. had given Haiti $5.1 billion in assistance since the 2010 earthquake.
Just a couple days after the march on Washington D.C. this month, Assistant Secretary Brian Nichols announced the U.S. is giving an additional $12 million to strengthen Haitian National Police’s capacity to respond to gang violence. This is in addition to the $250 million the US has already provided to HNP since 2010.
Despite such expenditure and $13 billion in foreign aid, the situation in Haiti continues to be dire.
Madeleine Bastien, Executive Director for Family Action Network Movement (FANM) and Haitian Women of Miami, was one of the speakers at the D.C. march calling for a shift in U.S. foreign aid to end gang violence and political corruption.
“The US is the most powerful nation on Earth. If the US is credible, the first thing that we want them to do is to quell the flow of arms that are going to Haiti to kill our people. The US need to stop supporting dictators and autocrats. Incompetent, corrupt leaders that are trampling on the basic rights of the Haitian people and have squandered Haiti’s resources. And when our people come here to flee in such a safe haven, what do they do? They arrest them, pick them up and deport them,” said Bastien.
Last February in Haiti, there were mass demonstrations protesting President Moise’s administration. Protesters accused Moise of overstaying his elected term, corrupt mismanagement of public funds, and of using gang violence to enforce his political will. Yet both the Trump and Biden administrations sided with President Moise in a constitutional dispute about his term length and continued to give public support to his government.
The Clinton administration intervened militarily in 1994 to restore the first democratically elected Haitian President Jean Aristide after a coup attempt. Yet it supported structural adjustment policies with the IMF and World Bank that undermined his economic reforms. Aristide was taken into exile by the U.S. after violent clashes between his supporters and the opposition and a second coup attempt in 2004. The Bush administration denied Aristide’s claims that the U.S. supported the coup.
From 1957 to 1986, the U.S. funded the adminstrations of “Papa Doc” Francois Duvalier and his successor and son “Baby Doc” Jean-Claude Duvalier despite report of massive human rights violations. They were important Cold War allies in battle with the Soviet Union for influence in Latin America and Caribbean. The U.S. also sought to stabilize Haiti to stem violent uprisings, maintain trade, and quell migration surges.
This commitment to stability at the price of democracy also contributed earlier to a U.S. military occupation over Haiti from 1915-1934. Even after its withdrawal, the U.S. maintained fiscal control of the country until 1947.
Haiti was the second nation in the Western hemisphere to declare its independence, following the U.S. Haiti’s status as the first Black-led country to gain independence in 1804 was a threat to the U.S. economy and slaveholders feared it would fuel slave uprisings
Both France and the U.S. initially refused to recognize Haiti’s independence. Despite its defeat of France, Haiti agreed to compensate the colonial power for the consequent financial losses in exchange for recognition of its statehood. U.S. took control of the debt during its occupation. This was the beginning of decades of crippling international debt for Haiti that helped undermine its economic development.
These historic patterns and recent support for Moise has some Haitian activists concerned that the U.S. and foreign partners within the Core Group will continue to support autocratic governments in Haiti.
In February after President Moise dissolved Parliament and refused to hold elections, a coalition of civil society groups in Haiti formed a commission to challenge corruption and work toward a functional, democratically elected government. The coalition named itself the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis.
It is not yet clear how the commission will successfully implement plans for transition to a democratic government and greater security. Yet march leaders like Bastien and Rockingster expressed support for a greater role for civil society in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora in the U.S. in charting Haiti’s future.
“What we want the Biden administration to do is to work with the Haitian Diaspora to implement policies toward Haiti where it could be sustainable. Sustainable relief [and] economic development for Haiti. And maybe the people will not want to come here because they are satisfied at home. You want to close the border and stop people from coming to this country, stop exploiting the country and start contributing to positive effects of that country and then it will definitely stop,” said Rockingster.
*first name used only per request from the DREP migrant center to protect identity.
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