The U.S. Still Hasn’t “Forgiven Haiti for Being Black”—And Modern Immigrants Are Paying the Price

The thread of violence and discrimination toward Haitian asylum seekers stretches all the way through to this moment, under a bridge in Texas.  

In an 1893 speech examining the U.S. relationship with Haiti, Frederick Douglass said:

“But a deeper reason for coolness between the countries is this: Haiti is [B]lack, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being [B]lack or forgiven the Almighty for making her [B]lack.”

That was before the invasion of Haiti by U.S. forces in 1915, before the U.S. brutally occupied the island nation for decades, decimating civil society, cultural and educational institutions, and Haiti’s financial reserves. It’s been less than 100 years since the brutal occupation of Haiti by the U.S. and many years fewer since the U.S. withdrew their dictatorial hand over the public and financial affairs of Haiti.

Yet, pictures of U.S. Border Patrol agents rounding up Haitian asylum seekers with whips while thousands more languish under a bridge in the unrelenting Texas heat make it clear that 128 years after Frederick Douglass’s speech, his words still ring true. The U.S. has not forgiven Haiti for being Black.

The experience of Black immigrants in this country is profoundly impacted by the anti-Black racism pervasive in the United States. In the 1970s and ’80s while the U.S. was propping up an “anti-Communist” dictator in Haiti, thousands fled seeking safety. When these migrants arrived, who were predominantly poor and Black, the U.S. literally changed immigration policy to indefinitely detain Haitians. The explosion of mass immigrant detention stems directly from this action. The thread of violence and discrimination toward Haitian asylum seekers stretches all the way through to this moment, under a bridge in Texas.  

Now, when confronted with many thousands of Haitians who are seeking a place of refuge from devastations of natural disasters compounded by political upheaval, the U.S. response is to expedite repatriations. There’s not an ounce of recognition that the calamity many face in Haiti lies directly at the feet of U.S. foreign policy for centuries. Instead, the administration is using the same tactics as every administration before: brutal intimidation and treatment as well as a reliance on violence and deprivation as deterrence.  

It is particularly vexing, because it was only a few months ago in May when the same administration determined that Haiti wasn’t able to repatriate citizens due to the unsafe conditions on the ground. How is the temporary protected status (TPS) determination less potent after yet another earthquake and further civil unrest? Hundreds of thousands are without access to power, shelter, food and clean water and conditions are worsening. Violence and instability are another significant threat to those returning to Haiti. 

These factors combined illustrate the inhumanity of sending planes full of people who were fleeing these conditions, right back into them. Using Title 42 as a smokescreen to cover these mass deportations is particularly crass, public health orders exist for the greater good. No one is served by expelling people back to violent and unsafe conditions.

The Biden administration has spoken often and eloquently about America’s regard at home and abroad and bringing back esteem to the United States. These sentiments are dissonant with our current actions. Saying the words ‘human rights matter’ becomes rather hollow when this is how the U.S. treats those seeking asylum.  

Recommendations from U.S.-based organizations advocating for Haiti and further endorsed by several members of Congress need to be followed. This includes halting Haiti deportations and releasing Haitians in detention, updating the TPS cutoff date to instead be “continuous presence” and offer deferred enforced departure (DED) designations for Haitians. Finally, the U.S. must offer humanitarian parole for Haitians arriving at the border. 

Each administration is faced with a choice on our relations with Haiti and how we treat our neighbors. Up to this point, the choice has universally been to enslave, invade or expel. This seemingly endless cycle is failing, and we are failing, as a country to live up to any hope of redemption.  We must find a way to break the cycle and the opportunity is now.

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Katie Adams is the policy advocate for domestic issues at the United Church of Christ.