The United States has a long and painful history of disparate treatment of Haitian refugees. We now have a chance to rectify past injustices.
El Paso, Texas
Late September 2021
The Haitian families gathered at Annunciation House had already endured the months-long and dangerous journey to our southern border, a week or more camped under a bridge with little food or water, and several more bewildering days confined by the U.S. Border Patrol.
“You are no longer in immigration custody,” the person at the front of the room was telling them. “You can leave whenever you want. You are all free to go.”
It took a moment for the words to break through. The families had each been given their NTA (a Notice to Appear before an immigration judge.) Some of the adults had been given monitoring devices. And then they were dropped off at the shelter with no other information.
One happy—but perplexed—father turned to Kristen Bowdre, executive director for JFON El Paso.
“We didn’t know where we were going,” he told her, shaking his head. “They didn’t tell us anything.”
Holding an exhausted toddler in her arms, a young mother reached out to touch Kristen’s sleeve. “God bless you,” she said, smiling. “I can go to my family now. Thank you. Thank you.”
Kristen, a former board member of Annunciation House, tried to explain that she had nothing to do with their release. She was only there as a volunteer. But the expressions of gratitude—and blessings—continued.
At long last, here was a piece of good news. The constant fear and worry lifted for a moment and the bone-weary parents could enjoy the sweet relief of hope. While so many of their countrymen were being rounded up and deported, they would be able to travel on to join family members in the United States.
They had to thank someone. And Kristen was closest at hand.
As of September 27, the border patrol has released over 1,200 asylum seekers to Annunciation House. Almost all are families with young children. And all of them have sponsors—usually other family members—living in this country. They are at the shelter for temporary respite—a day or two of rest, food, clothing, and other necessities—before moving on to other parts of the country.
El Paso is our newest JFON site and won’t start offering legal services until later this year. So for Kristen, volunteering to help at the shelter was a way to feel connected to the people she hopes her office will soon be serving.
“This is something I can do now,” she says. “I can be part of this message of welcome and compassion. And I can represent the JFON network in the community.”
Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haiti
Haitian nationals residing in the U.S. were first granted TPS protections following the catastrophic —7.0 on the Richter scale—earthquake in 2010. Haiti has since been redesignated for TPS several times, most recently in May 2021. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas cited grave security concerns, a political crisis, human rights abuses, a dire economic situation, and lack of access to food, water, and healthcare—all exacerbated by the pandemic—as reasons for the redesignation.
It would have been unconscionable to deport Haitians living in the United States to Haiti in May 2021. It is equally unconscionable to deport Haitians from our southern border to Haiti now.
We join thousands of other organizations across the United States and call on the Biden administration to STOP deporting Haitians now. We further ask the administration to expand TPS protections to Haitian asylum seekers.
A Shameful Disparity
“When Black asylum seekers or Black immigrants are confronted by state power, whether it be the local police on the streets or (federal agents) … they’re confronted in a violent manner on different levels than what we see happening with migrants who are not Black.”
Nana Gyamfi, executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
The photos of U.S. Border Patrol agents mounted on large horses, flicking their reins like whips as they chased down unarmed Haitian asylum seekers shocked and outraged many people in this country. But for Black immigration activists—particularly those in the Haitian community—it was a painful reminder of a pattern of racism that goes back decades.
Beginning in the 1970s, thousands of Haitians took to makeshift boats to flee the oppressive Duvalier dictatorship. They were known as the “boat people,” and their destination was South Florida.
Sadly, they were not welcomed as refugees seeking freedom and democracy. They were instead imprisoned in hastily constructed detention centers and deported—as a way to deter their countrymen from attempting the journey to the United States.
Following a bloody military coup in September 1991, a new wave of Haitian refugees—more than 70,000—took to the seas to escape rampant killings and violence. Most were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and sent back to Haiti without any attempt at asylum processing. Another 12,000 were brought to Guantanamo Base in Cuba, which was, at the time, considered beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. law.
“America’s system of mass detention for immigrants began with the practice of detaining Haitian immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Breanne Palmer, Interim Policy & Advocacy Director of the UndocuBlack Network. “What the world has just seen is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the experiences of Black immigrants—whether we are being brutalized at the border, being neglected and abused in detention, being restrained and forced onto deportation flights, or simply existing in America in our Black bodies that are routinely criminalized and targeted.”
President Biden now has an opportunity to lead this country to break free of the insidious anti-Black racism which has plagued the U.S. immigration system for so long. We call on the administration to ensure that Haitian asylum seekers are welcomed with dignity and respect—and provided with all necessary humanitarian protections.
*For more about the Haitian prisoner experience in Guantanamo, read/watch Frontline’s documentary The Forever Prison.
Further reading: The Haitian Refugee Crisis led to the indefinite detention of immigrants
Photo of Haitian refugee family beside their tent in U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba courtesy of the U.S. National Archives. Date unknown.