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What Does the United States Have Against Haitian Refugees?

They are resilient, having survived political, economic and environmental turmoil in Haiti. Yet, we don’t like to admit them to our country, and we treat them miserably if they get here.

A Haitian man helps two children cross the Rio Grande River, the U.S.-Mexico border, into Del Rio, Texas.
A Haitian man helps two children cross the Rio Grande River, the U.S.-Mexico border, into Del Rio, Texas.
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
A few weeks ago, 27 Republican governors requested a meeting with President Biden to address what they termed a “crisis” near a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, due to the encampment of over 2,000 people, most of them Haitian refugees who were able to enter the U.S. from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. More than 600 special Homeland Security employees, including some from the Coast Guard, traveled to Del Rio to carry out what agency officials called “one of the swiftest large-scale expulsions of migrants and refugees from the United States in decades.”

The video footage of border control agents pursuing these refugees and beating them with whip-like rods sparked national outrage. Numerous agencies and individuals work together to secure the border, including presidents, governors, mayors, law enforcement officers and border agents, but the recent events in Texas have created widespread perception of especially cruel attitudes toward Haitian immigrants. When thinking about the treatment of Haitian migrants in Texas, one must question whether they are being treated like all undocumented immigrants or whether they are targets of anti-black racism?

Rumors of a Haitian “curse” have been floating around for years. Evangelist Pat Robertson once said that Haitian slaves “swore a pact to the devil” when fighting the French for their freedom and “said ‘we will serve you if you will get us free from the French’… so the devil said ‘OK, it’s a deal,’ and they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got themselves free, but ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Although Robertson’s speculations are ridiculous, Haiti’s historical maladies provide ample evidence of human misfortune and just plain bad luck. On Aug. 14, a massive earthquake in southwestern Haiti resulted in almost 2,000 deaths and over 9,000 injuries. Days later, Hurricane Grace caused additional flooding in a country that has yet to recover from the 2010 earthquake that killed 230,000 people and displaced 1.5 million others. All of this followed a century of political turmoil including the murderous regimes of the Duvalier family and the recent assassination of Prime Minister Jovenel Moïse.

Haitians are known for their resilience. In addition to climate disasters and violent dictatorship, its citizens have endured the burden of living in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and a long history of occupation and exploitation by Spain, France and the United States. Since 2010, Haitian citizens have struggled to save their environment and enhance their way of life with the help of billions of international aid dollars. But the misfortune remains. Over the years, most Haitian citizens have remained in their home country, but thousands of others have chosen to flee.   

That’s where the United States comes in. America has had a sustained history of hostility against Haitian immigrants. The first documented Haitian political refugees came in 1972. But their attempts to flee the oppressive dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier failed because all were deported.

The Haitian experience has often been contrasted with that of Cubans. As political refugees fleeing a Communist state, Cubans have been granted asylum in large numbers. Haitians, on the other hand, are considered to be economic refugees despite the political turmoil there, and have difficulty gaining admission.

The rejection of Haitian asylum seekers continues to this day. Mexico’s National Migration Institute recently returned Haitian migrants from Texas to the southern Mexican city of Tapachula so that they could apply for asylum there, but many had already tried unsuccessfully. Last year, only 22 percent of Haitian asylum applications were approved in Mexico, even as most of those from Venezuelans (98 percent), Hondurans (85 percent), Salvadorans (83 percent), and Cubans (44 percent) were accepted. Between 2018 and 2021 across the entire United States, only 4.62 percent of Haitian asylum seekers were granted asylum — the lowest rate among 84 national groups.

These immigration issues alone don’t prove the existence of anti-black racism and we know that it is necessary to secure the border, but we have to ask ourselves two questions. Why is the number of Haitian migrants allowed to enter this country so much smaller than that of other nationalities? And when securing the border, can we really allow Haitians, or anyone else, to be beaten with rods by angry men on horseback?

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Sharon Wright Austin is a professor of Political Science at the University of Florida where she teaches courses in Asian American politics, African American politics, American politics, and public policy.
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