Making an Example of Haitian Asylum Seekers
After months of mass deportations of Haitians, Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal complaint last week in Boston on behalf of about 50 Haitians detained in overcrowded conditions by immigration authorities. The group called for the Department of Homeland Security to investigate “how racial animus and national origin discrimination” contributed to conditions at the border, including lack of access to showers or beds. And when the images of Border Patrol agents on horseback in Del Rio, Texas, chasing Haitian asylum seekers went viral, many saw the episode as an embarrassment for the Biden administration that exemplified the cruelty of American immigration policies.
But some immigrant advocates have a different take—what if the cruelty is the point?
For Rose Berry, co-director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP), the recent federal actions involving Haitian asylum seekers open new chapters in the history of racist treatment of Black migrants that are designed to discourage further migration to the United States and dehumanize the adults and children seeking refuge. “The government and the media are trying to make an example out of Haitian folks,” Berry says.
The overpolicing of Black people within the U.S. facilitates racist immigration enforcement.
The Biden administration’s rumored plans to detain Haitian asylum seekers at Guantanamo Bay echoed the detention of Haitians at the military prison in the early 1990s, when the Centers for Disease Control stoked racist fears that Haitians spread HIV and AIDS. The Krome Detention Center in Miami, one of the first modern detention centers in the U.S., was established in response to the influx of Haitian migrants during that period.
Immigration advocates have condemned the administration’s recent use of Title 42 during COVID-19, a public-health measure that allows the federal government to rapidly expel migrants without a hearing before an immigration judge or asylum officer. But the administration’s reliance on Title 42 shows little sign of slowing. During his confirmation hearing, Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Chris Magnus, said he believed the use of Title 42 helped to slow the spread of COVID-19, despite public-health experts arguing that the use of Title 42 is “scientifically baseless.”
The administration also doubled down on its justifications of the policy after Harold Koh, a senior adviser in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, left his post and issued a blistering memo criticizing the mistreatment of Haitian asylum seekers. Koh is a longtime critic of U.S. policies toward Haitian migrants: In the 1990s, he led a legal team of Yale Law students working to free Haitians detained at Guantanamo Bay.
Immigration policies often discriminate against Black migrants. In negotiations over the DREAM Act in 2018, members of Congress proposed cutting diversity visas—which primarily go to migrants from Africa and Asia—in exchange for increasing green cards for Central American migrants. “There is a feeling that it’s OK to impose this cost on Haitians in pursuit of a broader goal for a lighter-skinned constituency,” says Brian Concannon, co-founder of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “It’s not an accident that the darkest-skinned immigrants are the ones who are being singled out the most.”
Black people also face bias when they appear before immigration authorities. Patrice Lawrence, co-director of the UndocuBlack Network, an advocacy group for Black undocumented immigrants, told the Prospect that Black migrants’ reasons for entering the U.S. are less likely to be taken seriously by immigration authorities. During “credible fear” interviews before asylum officers, migrants must construct a narrative of their entire lives without being provided legal representation.
Implicit bias can play a large role in whether asylum claims are deemed “consistent” and “credible.” Immigration judges are usually white and have served as prosecutors or ICE officials. Between October 2018 and June 2021, only about 5 percent of asylum applications from Haitians were successful, the lowest rate for any nationality.
The overpolicing of Black people within the U.S. also facilitates racist immigration enforcement as migrants are targeted by the increasingly intertwined criminal justice and immigration systems. The 287(g) program allows local police departments to transfer detainees to ICE, which could lead to a migrant being deported before her criminal case is resolved, based on little more than racial profiling. Indeed, Black migrants are more likely to be deported: They constitute 7 percent of the undocumented population in the U.S. but 20 percent of people deported on criminal charges.
During a detained migrant’s bond hearing, an immigration judge sets or denies bail based on whether that person is a flight risk or poses a danger to the community. These subjective assessments contribute to bail disparities. According to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, the average bond paid by the group for Haitian migrants is $16,700, which is 54 percent higher than bonds paid by other migrants.
According to a 2020 study by researchers at the University of California, U.S. immigration authorities placed detainees from African and Caribbean countries in solitary confinement six times as often as the general population. Black migrants also experience medical neglect in detention. In 2019, Nebane Abienwi, a Cameroonian migrant, died in ICE custody after being denied treatment for high blood pressure.
Haiti has been politically and economically unstable for generations. After its war for independence from France, Haitians were forced to pay the French billions in reparations to compensate former slave owners. Subsequent U.S. interventions, which included CIA funding to prop up dictators, have contributed to massive waves of out-migration. The Haitian Bridge Alliance and other advocacy groups wrote a letter to the Biden administration expressing outrage over the continued use of Title 42, saying, “Migration is a human right and for Black immigrants, it is a form of reparations for centuries of colonialism and extraction.”
Ella Fanger is an editorial intern at the Prospect.
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