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The extraordinarily cruel plight of Haitian migrants

They face racism all over the continent.

A man carries a child on his shoulders as Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande between Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila state, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, on Sept. 23.PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

In a world of unwanted refugees, perhaps none have been more shunned and mistreated than Haitians.

What has transpired in the last few days in Del Rio, Texas, a small border city where more than 14,000 Haitians ended up stationed in their efforts to seek refuge in the United States, is only the tip of the iceberg for the Haitian refugee diaspora. Widely seen photos of US Customs and Border Patrol officers on horseback clashing with Haitians migrants on foot highlighted a wrenching moment in what has been a long migration journey for most of them.

Haitians are desperate for asylum because they have been pushed out by a series of catastrophes that date back to the 2010 earthquake that killed a quarter-million people in Haiti. The country never recovered economically or politically since then and has struggled with persistent poverty and violence. More recently, those challenges have been exacerbated by the crisis triggered by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July and the earthquake in August that left more than 2,200 people dead.

And so Haitians have been forced to flee for more than a decade; many found refuge in South America. But how thousands ended up at our southern border, to be met with American xenophobia and violence last weekend, is a story that also involves the pervasive racism against Black immigrants that permeates Latin America. In short, some South American countries have also been complicit in the cruel plight of Haitians.


Many of the thousands of Haitians at Del Rio are not coming directly from Haiti — they’re mostly coming from Chile and Brazil. According to Chilean authorities, in 2016, close to 4,000 Haitians were arriving in Chile every month. But in the last few years, Chile and Brazil have tightened their immigration policies, as described in “A Journey of Hope: Haitian Women’s Migration to Tapachula, Mexico,” a report published this year by the Haitian Bridge Alliance and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Those new policies in South America have been effectively anti-Haitian, designed to make it harder for Haitians to get work visas.


As a result, many Haitians had no choice but to leave, once again. Many made their way through the continent to Mexico, where the government has often unleashed police violence against foreigners in Mexico’s own southern border with Guatemala, depicted in harrowing journalistic and social media reports. Mexico has effectively become Trump’s wall, figuratively speaking, in that the Mexican government has played a big enforcement role trying to contain migrants, primarily from Central America and Haiti, from reaching the United States.

Meanwhile, the process to seek asylum at the US-Mexico border has been compounded by a Trump-era measure triggered in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. The Biden administration has not fully rescinded the policy, commonly referred to as Title 42, which has allowed federal agents at the border to quickly expel migrants, ostensibly to protect public health, in this case because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Thursday, the US government had conducted 17 repatriation flights to Haiti since Sept. 19 and nearly 2,000 Haitians have been returned to their homeland, a place that undoubtedly is in no position to receive them. Thousands of other Haitians have been allowed into the United States.


There continues to be no public health rationale to keep Title 42 in place. But Biden has resisted urgent and repeated calls from immigrant advocates and public health experts to fully cancel the policy. Title 42 has functioned like a powerful hammer that, when Trump first invoked it, meant that people who came to the border to claim asylum were turned away for the first time since the Refugee Act of 1980 was implemented. (You can blame Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller for that.) Title 42 at the border has always been a solution in search of a problem. But it has certainly served the political and cruel purpose of promptly expelling migrants.

It is reasonable to conclude, then, that immigration policy at the border under Biden does not differ that much from Trump’s. It’s why Democratic Representative Maxine Waters of California sharply criticized Biden and compared him to his Republican predecessor.

The Biden administration vigorously disagreed. “We could not see it as any more different from the policy of the prior administration, which the president feels, we all feel, was inhumane, immoral, ineffective, wasn’t operationally working, and because of the dysfunction of it, we have led to a very broken system that we are dealing with today,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.


It is an easy excuse to keep blaming Trump. Yet, by keeping Title 42, Biden is doubling down on deterrence, which is the same basis for immigration policy that the Trump administration did not hesitate to use repeatedly (see: family separation.) When are policy makers going to realize that immigration enforcement via deterrence is not a viable solution at the border?

Moreover, Americans are coming to realize that cruelty and ineptitude at the border is not limited to one political party. The common denominator is cynicism — a calculated denial of recognizing the longstanding role of the United States to provide refuge for those who have nowhere else to turn.

Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.