Haitian Refugees Test The Measure Of Our Nation’s Humanity
BY JESSE JACKSON
In one of the largest, fastest, most abrupt mass expulsions of refugees in modern U.S. history, the United States has begun flying some 12,000 Haitians camped in a Texas border town back to Haiti. Invoking executive authority asserted by Donald Trump, the Biden administration is enforcing the Donald Trump immigration policy when it comes to Haitians.
The first 320 migrants flown to Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, arrived dazed and distressed. Most were returned to a country that they had left years ago, migrating to Brazil or to Chile to find work — and then risking the dangerous trip to the U.S. border in the hope of improving their lives. On arrival in Haiti, they were given $100, tested for Covid-19, and left on their own.
They arrive in a country ravaged by natural disaster and political chaos. The former president was assassinated. Only last month, the island was struck by a devastating earthquake that killed more than 2,200 people and destroyed more than 137,500 homes and some 900 schools. According to Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency, fewer than half of the 83,000 families affected have received the food rations they need.
Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, the head of Haiti’s national migration office, admitted that the Haitian state is unable to provide security or food for the deportees and pleaded for a “humanitarian moratorium.”
What is the measure of our humanity? The Biden administration inherited an immigration policy shredded by Donald Trump, who fanned fears of immigrants as part of his race-bait politics. He illegally banned immigrants from Muslim countries. He scorned what he called “s**thole countries,” saying he only wanted immigrants from affluent white countries like Norway. He slandered Haitian immigrants as all having AIDS. And, of course, he made building The Wall a metaphor for America closing in on itself.
All this traduced America’s values, laws and history. This is, after all, a nation of immigrants. It also is a policy designed to fail. Very few people want to leave their homes, their communities or their countries. They undertake dangerous and often fatal migration only in desperation. When one side of a wall is a desert of opportunity and the other side looks green, no wall or army of guards will stop people from taking risks to try to save their families.
Haiti is the poorest nation in the hemisphere; a country battered by political upheaval and natural disaster. Yet it is a proud nation and a proud people. In 1804, Haiti became the second republic in the Western Hemisphere (after the U.S.), when Haitian slaves fought and defeated their French slave owners, throwing off their colonial power. Haiti became the first modern state to abolish slavery and the first state in the world to be formed from a successful revolt of the poor.
A Haitian trader — Jean Baptiste Point DuSable — arrived in the U.S. in the 1780s and is regarded as the founder of Chicago. But U.S. relations with Haiti were always scarred by racism. Fearful of the example set by Haiti’s slave revolt, the U.S. provided aid to attempt to put down the rebellion. When the revolution succeeded, slave interests in the U.S. blocked recognition of the new state until 1862 when the Southern states seceded.
In 1914, the Wilson administration sent U.S. Marines into Haiti, beginning an occupation that lasted 20years. The U.S. took control of the assets of the Haitian National Bank, rewrote Haitian laws to allow foreigners to purchase land, and restructured the Haitian economy to serve U.S. interests. Haitian rebels who fought against the invasion were subjected to brutal repression. The horror led Smedley Butler, a general in the U.S. Marine Corps, to regret that “I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.”
In 1991, a Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, won the presidency in a democratic election with massive support from the poor. Seven months later, the Haitian military removed him in a coup that resulted in chaos. The U.S. military went back to occupy Haiti from 1994 to 1997 to “establish peace.” When Aristide returned and won re-election again, the Haitian military once more removed him with the support of the U.S. military.
To this day, Haitian refugees receive what can only be called discriminatory treatment from this country. For example, both Cuban and Haitian refugees flee from dictatorships and repression. Yet Cubans, who are mostly white, receive special treatment, including a direct path to permanent residence. Haitian immigrants, generally of African descent, have been denied, repeatedly, the relief they are entitled to and must overcome significant obstacles to gain legal permanent residence.
Now once more the plight of Haitian refugees tests the measure of this administration’s and this country’s humanity. Will the U.S. simply dump thousands of the displaced in a country that has no way to protect them? Does the administration continue to treat them differently than refugees coming from Central America?
I believe that we should measure all human beings by one yard stick. Across America, millions are excited by football games on Saturday and Sunday. Central to what makes them exciting is that while the outcome is unknown, we do know that the playing field is level, the rules are public, and the referees are fair. Under those conditions, all can compete and all can win. The values of our foreign policy should not be less humane than those of our domestic policy. For refugees — families in distress — the rules should be clear and the playing field even.