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Haiti refugee crisis is causing pain in Boston

Migrants from Haiti lined up to receive clothes from Mexican volunteers at an improvised refugee shelter in Ciudad Acuña on Tuesday.Fernando Llano/Associated Press

The sight of Haitian refugees being rounded up by US Border Patrol agents in Texas strikes a deep nerve in Boston, home to one of the largest Haitian communities in North America.

“We’ve had people coming to the border before, and I have yet to see them attacked with horses,” said former state representative Marie St. Fleur of Dorchester. “The visual disparity is striking.”

In what has been called an effort to stem a tide of illegal immigration, the Biden administration has instituted a program of shipping refugees trying to enter the country back to Haiti.

The program is legally dubious, as it tramples the right to due process of many people who might have a legal claim to enter the country.


And it also forces the return of refugees to what might well be the most troubled country in the western hemisphere. In the space of just over two months, Haiti has witnessed both the unsolved murder of its president, Jovenel Moise, and a major earthquake.

Those events have only accelerated a refugee crisis that was already at least a decade old. Indeed, advocates said that many of those attempting to enter through Texas are people who fled Haiti for South America in the aftermath of a disastrous 2010 earthquake and have been displaced ever since.

“They went to South America — especially Brazil, Chile, and Peru — fleeing some combination of political and economic oppression,” said Boston-based human rights lawyer Brian Concannon, who has long been active in humanitarian and legal fights in Haiti. “They kept heading north, looking for something better. And now they’ve been stopped at the border.”

President Biden promised to fix our nation’s long-broken immigration system. But if his week is any indication, that promise is a long way from being kept. Immigration reform has been ruled out of the $3.5 trillion bill before Congress that includes much of Biden’s wish list. Meanwhile, refugees on the border are being loaded onto planes and sent home without so much as a hearing.


The harsh manner in which the refugees were being removed was decried Tuesday by both Vice President Kamala Harris and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. They said there will be an investigation — as well there should be.

Concannon argues that Biden is foolishly trying to win Republican support for some form of immigration reform, in part by showing that he is willing to crack down on who can enter the country.

To his mind, Biden is being manipulated by what he called white supremacists who have resisted all approaches to immigration reform for years, and will continue to.

“The more he backs down from the white supremacists, the more they see that (their tactics) will work. Biden can show them that these tactics aren’t going to work by enforcing the law.”

For St. Fleur, the flood of refugees from Haiti is a reflection of longstanding issues that mass deportations will not fix.

“With the death of the president and the gang violence, people are trying to get the hell out of there,” she said.

St. Fleur urged a different, more humane approach, starting with a process for allowing those with family in this country to legally enter.

“This is a humanitarian crisis, and they need to treat it as such,” St. Fleur said.


“And the other thing is, this is all part of a global crisis of displacement. We’re talking about 80 million people across the globe who have been displaced. A number of things are causing this, and the knee-jerk solution of just sending them back will not work. They’re going to find their way back, because where they’re going is impossible.”

Immigration is a complicated issue, and the still new president has just about everything on his plate. But I think most Americans would agree that rounding people up at the border — sometimes by violent means — and shipping them back to a country in chaos is a grotesque contrast with the more humane approach Biden promised.

“I think Biden has to do better than Trump did,” St. Fleur said. “The current visuals do not meet that test.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @Adrian_Walker.