United States Border Patrol agents on horseback swinging their reins as they charged at desperate Haitian migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande river in Del Rio, Tex. That’s the image that in recent days blanketed the Internet, dominated headlines, and drew sharp criticism from some political figures and human rights advocates.
The migrants, carrying backpacks and children on their shoulders, were trying to cross the river in search of protection and opportunities in the United States. For many, the crossing was the final leg of an arduous journey that had taken them through roadless forests and across dark rivers in Central and South America. Some began the trek in 2010, when a massive earthquake struck Haiti, paralyzing the country’s already crippled economy. The quake, as a UNICEF report noted, killed more than 220,000 people, leaving others “in dire need of assistance.”
Following that devastation was this July’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Indeed, as The New York Times reported, Haiti had been grappling with political upheaval “well before the assassination.” But the violence has only surged since the killing of Moïse. And a month after the president’s assassination, yet another earthquake hit the Caribbean nation.
The mounting crises there have forced many to try their luck elsewhere. The migrants whose pictures flooded the Internet were among thousands of Haitian asylum seekers attempting to restart their lives in the United States. But federal patrol agents, wearing chaps and cowboy hats, confronted them with horses and reins—a tactic Vice President Kamala Harris said evokes images of slavery.
President Joe Biden, for his part, called the officers’ treatment of Haitian migrants “outrageous,” vowing that those involved in the reported abuse will face the consequences of their actions. “It sends the wrong message around the world and sends the wrong message at home,” he told reporters of the mistreatment. “It’s simply not who we are.”
But is this really the first time that federal agents hunted down and rounded up Haitian migrants trying to seek asylum in the United States?
Not at all, say experts of the Haitian diaspora and immigration scholars. Since the early 1960s, when the first known group of Haitian “boat people” landed in South Florida, it didn’t take long for immigration authorities to round them up and send them back to their impoverished island. Immigrant agents repeated that response in the decades that followed, irrespective of the political affiliation of the man occupying the Oval Office.
Sixty Years of Mistreatment
In Americans at the Gate, historian Carl Bon Tempo discusses Haitians who fled François Duvalier’s oppressive regime in the late 1950s and sought refuge in the United States. But the US government never recognized these Haitians—most of whom were educated people from more affluent backgrounds—as refugees.
In 1963, scholars John Scanlan and Gilburt Loescher wrote in the Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, the first known Haitian “boat people” arrived in Florida and requested political asylum. American immigration authorities denied their request and sent them back to the island.
That rejection didn’t deter many Haitians from entering the United States. In the 1970s, more Haitian asylum seekers arrived in Florida on freighters and small boats. Between 1972 and 1977, about 3,500 Haitian migrants arrived in the Sunshine State. These new boat people, Scanlan and Loescher noted, “were poor, uneducated, and of rural origin.”
Whatever the Haitians’ background, immigration officials, once again, didn’t give them a chance to make their case before a judge. Instead, said Jocelyn McCalla, a policy analyst in New York, immigration officers pressured them to sign voluntary departure forms that made official their return to Haiti. “They were quickly rounded up by the Border Patrol,” McCalla told me. “They didn’t use horses like they recently did in Texas. But they were detained. One of them committed suicide in detention.”
At roughly the same period, the United States opened its gates to streams of Cubans fleeing the Castro government. Unlike their Haitian counterparts, Cubans were admitted into the country under a federal refugee resettlement program that gave them permanent residency and financial support.
Tempo concludes that Cold War politics influenced America’s unequal treatment of Haitians and Cubans: In the eyes of the US government, Haitians fleeing violence and persecution at the hands of Duvalier, a US ally, didn’t deserve a safe haven here. It was only those escaping Castro’s communist state who were worthy of America’s compassion.
That’s one explanation. McCalla has another theory to explain why the United States has long placed Haitians outside the refugee and asylum policies: racism. “That’s the reason Haitians have never been treated as refugees,” McCalla told me. “They have to demonstrate that they’re asylum seekers.”
For Nana Gyamfi, executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a national racial justice and immigration rights group, race is clearly at play in America’s long history of excluding Haitian asylum seekers. “In fact,” Gyamfi told me during a recent interview, “it can safely be said that the system of detention and deportation which has gone so big over these decades began as an effort to criminalize asylum seeking by Haitian people. So there’s an unforgivable Blackness about Haiti.”
The internationally acclaimed Haitian-America novelist Edwidge Danticat wrote in the September 24 New Yorker about her family’s unfortunate encounters with US immigration officials: “I remembered my eighty-one-year-old uncle Joseph dying in US immigration custody in Miami, in 2004, after fleeing Port-au-Prince’s Bel Air neighborhood in the wake of a bloody United Nations forces operation. He was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after requesting asylum at Miami International Airport. His medications were taken away, and, after his health deteriorated, he was brought to a local hospital’s prison ward, where he died shackled to a bed.”
The stories of Joseph and the migrants whom the patrol agents chased around on the banks of Del Rio, McCalla noted, are part of a 60-year experience of Haitian asylum seekers who have been rounded up and detained across the United States. “You also [had] Haitians detained in 1991 in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” he added. “They were the first refugees incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay.”
Deported to Danger
After spending days under the Del Rio International Bridge in Texas, thousands of Haitians asylum seekers have now been deported to Haiti—a country that even the US Department of State tells Americans not to visit because of “kidnapping, crime, civil unrest.”
Many of the migrants know little about the country they’re forced to return to, said Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and former director of the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute. They’ve lived and worked in places like Brazil, Chile, and Panama before embarking on the perilous journey north. “Many don’t have any connection with the country,” Saint Paul told me. “They don’t have any place to call home. Many of them now speak more Spanish and Portuguese than…Haitian Creole.”
Nicodeme Vyles is one of the recent Haitians returned to their homeland. The 45-year-old explained to The New York Times that he had lived in Panama since 2003 before making his way to Del Rio with his 9-year-old son. Vyles had planned to join his girlfriend and their small child in Maryland. But his abrupt expulsion from Del Rio cut his plan short. “They didn’t even give me an interview with an immigration agent,” he told the paper. “What am I going to do?”
Even as President Biden condemns the patrol agents’ treatment of the migrants, even as he calls for investigation into what really happened in Del Rio, immigration officials continue to round up and deport Haitian asylum seekers—the same way they rounded up and deported the Haitian asylum seekers of 60 years ago.