Things have only gotten more dire in Haiti since the government’s remaining legitimate leaders left the island last week, joining the nearly 1.6 million Haitians who have fled the crisis-ridden country over the years. The 10 senators, last elected in 2016, leave behind an empty parliament building, a figure-head president no one voted for and a capital city in the grip of gangs.
From the Founding Fathers to President Joe Biden, American presidents have intervened and tinkered with Haiti’s politics and development, leaving it now as a place where the people have no good choices.
In just the first three weeks of 2023, more than a dozen police officers were killed on the island. On Thursday, police officers themselves joined in protests, finding their way to the prime minister’s residence and leaving it ransacked. The message of frustration across the spectrum is clear, but relief remains elusive. The United Nations Security Council held a meeting on Haiti this week; world leaders were briefed on a plan, formulated through closed door meetings with Haitian ex-pats and power brokers, for new elections more than a year from now, in February 2024. Diplomatic boxes checked as Haiti continues to burn.
How Haiti went from being a groundbreaking country — the first in the Western Hemisphere to break the shackles of slavery — to a failed state is a sordid tale of American exceptionalism threatened by Black progress. From the Founding Fathers to President Joe Biden, American presidents have intervened and tinkered with Haiti’s politics and development, leaving it now as a place where the people have no good choices.
The people of Haiti simply can’t catch a break. Take this snapshot from three months in the summer of 2021: In July, President Jovenel Moise is assassinated in his home by a dozen gunmen barging in with assault rifles. Foreign agents get blamed and for lack of better options, the global community gathers around “designated Prime Minister” Ariel Henry. In August, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake destroys four hospitals, 100 schools and nearly 150,000 homes. Two days later, Hurricane Grace bears down, shutting off power and communications, isolating the people from any support from the outside world.
Turmoil in Haiti amid presidential assassination attemptJan. 7, 202203:30
This series of disasters would kneecap any state, but Haiti’s remaining systems had little resilience to begin with. International support for Haiti is waning after decades of failed humanitarian and military interventions. American diplomats have seen billions in humanitarian assistance go astray, lost in a web of corruption and gang violence. The U.S. military will still offer naval ships for offshore aid but putting boots on the ground is too risky given the specter of previous U.S. invasions. American presidents continue to see migrant crossings as a political liability and have relegated Black Haitians to the unofficial list of undesirable immigrants.
The empathy deficit for the people of Haiti is unlike anything we see when people flee other countries where the U.S. has a stated political interest. After 20 years of a U.S.-led war, Afghans received airlifts and a warm welcome in 2021. In the American imagination, Ukrainians are the avatar for fighting for freedom and democracy, so billions of dollars in aid were immediately approved and a new refugee class was created. Heads of state across Europe are negotiating about providing the Ukrainians with tanks. Cubans remain the cause-célèbre for America’s Cold War stand against socialism, enjoying nearly 50 years of special immigration status. America’s history with Haiti goes further back than any of these countries, but it was only a few days ago that Haitians received word they may qualify to enter the U.S. as Ukrainians do — and that notice was timed with the Department of Homeland Security’s announcement it would continue to turn away Haitians and others at the border.
Our immigration policy toward Haitians in particular does not line up with our American sense of historical memory.
An original sin from the era of revolution continues to color U.S. policy toward Haiti. President Thomas Jefferson saw the enslaved people of Haiti fight against all odds to gain their freedom and responded by supporting French demands that Haitians pay reparations to their former oppressors. That debt, currently valued at nearly $30 billion, ensured the world’s richest colony became one of the world’s poorest nations.
Decades of U.S. military intervention, from President Woodrow Wilson in the 1920s to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, put a U.S.-trained army in place while preventing democratic systems from naturally taking root. Generations of Haitians fleeing the resulting violence and corruption were denied access to political asylum. American presidents saw Haiti’s dictators as tolerable compared with the communists running Cuba. Successive administrations, from Reagan onward, considered Haitians to be “economic migrants.”While people were fleeing a failed economic system the U.S. helped develop, the singular status allows the Coast Guard to stop Haitian migrants at sea and deport them without a hearing. Of the tens of thousands of Haitians stopped at sea in the 1980s, only 11 were granted asylum.
Against the backdrop of this history and with a national security strategy that states, “Americans will support universal human rights and stand in solidarity with those beyond our shores who seek freedom and dignity, just as we continue the critical work of ensuring equity and equal treatment under law at home,” in the fall of 2021 the Biden administration decided to expand the wet-foot, dry-foot policy from the coast of Florida to deny Haitians entry at the U.S.-Mexico border. Images of mounted Custom and Border Patrol officers using lassos against people of Haitian descent inflamed the public, prompting the U.S. envoy to quit in protest over the “inhumane” policy of deporting Haitians back to devastation.
Our immigration policy toward Haitians in particular does not line up with our American sense of historical memory. President Reagan’s entire final speech in office was an ode to immigration as “one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. We create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow.”
When presented with the opportunity to reset immigration rules in favor of racial justice, the Biden administration opted to continue deporting Haitians rather than finding a way to give dignity back to the Haitian people. The United States can no longer be responsible for reconstruction or building new economies. But in seeking to deal with the root causes of migration, our policy needs to account for the pain the United States has created.