Haiti has been in turmoil for many years. This summer’s assassination of the Haitian president, devastating storms, and earthquake have further destabilized this nation, still reeling from political insecurity, a prior earthquake, and other tragedies of the past decade. As a result, Haitians seeking protection in the U.S. have faced treacherous routes and violence such as sexual assault, racial abuse, and beatings from Mexican troops.
Far from extending protection, horse-riding Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are pushing away Haitian asylum seekers at the cracks of their whip. We can’t begin to reckon with this level of governmental cruelty without looking back to history.
It is not the first time that Haitian asylum seekers have been treated ostensibly worse than others by U.S. authorities - often as a result of policies rooted in this country's history of white supremacy and anti-Black racism. In 1980, Congress passed the bipartisan Refugee Act--marking the first time that the U.S. recognized its duties not to refoul (or push back) asylum seekers seeking protection at U.S. borders. Codifying U.S. obligations under international law, Congress declared the “historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including, where appropriate, humanitarian assistance for their care.” The policy was tested, and the U.S. failed, when Haitians took to the sea to flee a brutal dictatorship.
The U.S. responded with cruelty, refusing to offer Haitians protection. In the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and growing public pressure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) designated Haitians as a high-risk group in 1983. Congress issued an immigration ban on individuals living with HIV/AIDS in 1987--a ban only selectively applied against Haitians. It became clear that Haitians were treated differently from other migrants; racial bias and fear-fueled governmental policy, not the historic policy Congress declared just a few years prior.
This disparity continued under President Reagan, under whom only 6 out of 21,000 Haitians received asylum hearings over the course of nine years.
When President Bush took office, he began to direct boats to Guantánamo Bay, a military base in Cuba now infamous for the indefinite detention of Middle Eastern and African men captured during the War on Terror. In an executive order, President Bush declared that the obligation not to refoul asylum seekers did not extend to asylum seekers intercepted outside the U.S., carving out the option for the U.S. Coast Guard to selectively apply asylum law depending on the location of the boats they intercepted.
Presidential candidate Bill Clinton decried the inhumane character of those policies before taking office and vowed to reverse Bush’s policy. Upon taking office, he merely rebranded Bush’s policy: now dubbed a humanitarian mission, Haitians still faced the same push-backs as before, along with indefinite detention in Guantánamo Bay.
Doctors Without Borders called the conditions in Guantánamo a “disgrace” as Haitians’ mental and physical health deteriorated every day. Refugees were told they could be detained for 10-20 years, or until a “cure” for HIV/AIDS was discovered. Years of litigation led to the Supreme Court, who ultimately ruled that any push-backs outside of U.S. territory did not amount to a violation of the Refugee Act. This tremendous defeat for Haitian asylum seekers sealed the deal for U.S. policy moving forward: democratic and republican governments alike had piloted the worst anti-asylum policies on Haitians and were emboldened to keep it up—whether at sea or by land.
Sea interceptions continue today, as do the transfer of Haitian and Cuban asylum seekers to third countries. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas confirmed as much this summer. CBP continued to push the limits of the Refugee Act. During the last months of the Obama administration, CBP began forcing Haitian asylum seekers to wait, under false pretenses of capacity. This “metering” policy was extended broadly to asylum seekers under the Trump administration, who explored other systematic push-backs including the Remain-in-Mexico program, rushed and unsafe third country agreements, and the closure of U.S. ports of entry under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic. All these policies inflicted incredible suffering on asylum seekers, especially Haitians—whom Trump denigrated frequently, including by calling their nation a s---hole country.
In light of this history, Biden’s promise of racial equity or a humane asylum system rings hollow when planes full of Haitians are sent back without fear screenings, or when CBP is literally whipping families seeking protection at the U.S. border. Haitians have waited far too long to be treated with dignity by the United States. We call on the Biden administration to immediately end expulsions, deportations to Haiti and allow Haitians to seek protection in the United States. That, after all, is the U.S. policy since 1980. It is past time to apply that to Haitians.
Learn more about pushing back protections by reading our report Pushing Back Protection: How Offshoring And Externalization Imperil The Right To Asylum.
- Chapter Four, Laying The Foundation Of U.S. Offshoring: From Angel Island to Guantánamo Bay, to learn more about the history of Haitians and Guantánamo Bay, and,
- Chapter Five, The United States’ Offshoring of Asylum Processing And Immigration Enforcement to Mexico and Central America, to read more about the Obama administration's pilot metering policies, the Trump administration's attempts to keep asylum seekers from non-white majority countries as far away from the U.S. as possible, and the first six-months of the Biden administration.