Haiti’s Unforgivable Blackness
Trymaine Lee: Some people say that Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is cursed. It's been wracked by hunger, political violence, coups, assassinations and natural disasters.
Archival Recording: This morning, a country in crisis.
Archival Recording: People tearing through rubble to find any signs of life after a monstrous 7.2 magnitude earthquake on Saturday devastated southwest Haiti.
Breaking news out of Haiti today as well. That's where the president of that country has been assassinated.
And now, tropical storm Grace is forecast to hit Haiti by tomorrow, bringing punishing rain that could lead to flash flooding and new mudslides. Yet another blow to a country in crisis.
Lee: But way back, it was one of the most valuable pieces of land on the planet. White colonizers arrived on the island and set up the first European settlement in the Americas. They eventually killed off the island's original inhabitants, the Taino, brought in enslaved Africans and, for hundreds of years, Europeans (the Spanish and then the French) devoured, exported and exploited anything and everything from the island; tobacco, sugar, coffee and Black bodies.
And they did so with violence. Colonial Haiti, or St. Domingue, as it was known early on, has been described as one of the most brutally efficient slave labor colonies to have ever existed. But then in 1791, an army of enslaved Black people led by General Toussaint Louverture revolted.
For the next dozen years, Black Haitians waged war against the French for their freedom. Eventually, the Haitians won, defeating the mighty French army and their leader, Napoleon. It's the only successful slave revolt in history. And Haiti would become the world's first Black-led republic.
But generations of Haitians would pay a steep price for that freedom; a price they're still paying to this day. It's been economically isolated, politically manipulated, and marked by much of the Western world as a pariah. Haiti isn't cursed; it's condemned.
Nana Gyamfi: Unforgivable blackness. Unforgivable blackness. They revolted. They rebelled. They showed Black people that we could fight our way out of enslavement.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. The Haitian migrant crisis at the southern border and the Biden administration's handling of it reveals an immigration policy disaster with deep and historic implications. Today, we explore the links between anti-blackness and immigration policy through the lens of the Haitian immigrant experience.
On September 19th, photographers captured the harrowing scene at the U.S./Mexico border. Border patrol agents on horseback chasing and intimidating a large group of Haitian migrants as they tried to cross into Texas. Some 15,000 people, most of them Haitians, had gathered at an encampment, hoping to claim asylum in the U.S.
Many of them have lived in South America for years. But a combination of right-wing violence, racism and lack of economic opportunity pushed 'em north. And with a series of disasters in their home country this summer, the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, an earthquake that left more than 2,000 people dead, and a tropical storm on top of all that, Haitians just felt it wasn't safe to return.
At the end of August, the Department of Homeland Security was already facing criticism for deporting thousands of Haitians this year. Then, less than a month later, those photographs of Black migrants being chased on horseback unleashed a flood of outrage.
Garry Pierre-pierre: First of all, I was shock and couldn't believe it. And you know, of course it hearkens back to slavery. You know, can this be? I was sad. I was outraged that they were Black people, they were my people, they were just people who was just all they wanted to do is find a better life. And this is where they think they can find it. And that's the crime they committed.
Lee: Gary Pierre-Pierre immigrated to New York City from Haiti when he was just 11 years old. He later became a journalist, won a Pulitzer at the New York Times, and in 1999, he founded the Haitian Times. How does that get us to 15-or-so thousand Haitian migrants at the border? How do we get to that place? What happened?
Pierre-pierre: Because, you know, like Bob Marley said, you made the world so hard that everyday people are dying. People cannot survive. Just there's no hope. There's no opportunity. You have a very rigid caste system in Haiti. You have a mass who are poor. And they have no hope.
You're born into a certain class. You don't move up. My parents, they realized that they needed a better life for me. You know, we moved to America because we can afford a plane ticket. The U.S. Embassy will give us a visa and that's what we did.
But the people at the bottom have no choice, you know. In the 1990s, they took to the sea. You know, this is where I began my career in journalism, covering that story; you know, the boat people. After the coup d'etat against Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991, people fled because, you know, there was no opportunity. There was no hope.
Lee: U.S. involvement in Haiti goes back centuries with natural disasters, political turmoil and poverty. Haiti became a regular recipient of U.S. aid. But Pierre-Pierre says having America's hands all over Haiti wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Pierre-pierre: The other thing that most Americans don't understand is that the power that America wields across the world, and especially in a place like Haiti. Haiti has worst of it all. It's not political like it's a territory. But America lords over Haiti. It decides which government gets into power.
Lee: For instance, the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied the country for two decades, executing political dissidents and overseeing a system of forced labor. And during the '70s and '80s, the U.S. supported Haiti's brutal dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, known as Baby Doc.
Pierre-pierre: It has made the Haitian people lose its appetite for democracy. I've watched it. You know, because every time they elect a leader, there's a coup. And I am an American by choice. I care for this country. I was not born here. And so, for us Haitian-Americans, it's really gut-wrenching. Because at the same time, at the core, we are American. I love football. I love basketball. And I am an American. But I'm also a Haitian. And when I see what my adopted country is doin' to my birth country, it's tough.
Lee: But as raw as that border footage was, for Nana Gyamfi, it wasn't surprising.
Gyamfi: Which I hate to say. It wasn't like, oh my gosh, this is happening. But it was just an outrage (almost a culminating outrage) because we Black migrants that are doing this advocacy work have been talking about the ways in which Black migrants, Haitian and other Black asylum-seekers in particular, have been so abused, mistreated, violated by the United States immigration policies as well as those immigration enforcement agents.
Lee: Gyamfi is the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, or BAJI.
Gyamfi: We educate, we advocate, we organize on behalf of the roughly 10 million Black migrant families in this country, as well as working alongside African Americans for racial, social and economic justice. And for the Biden administration to think that that would be all right, that it wasn't a problem whether caught on video or not, was just also really disturbing and, I know for our community members, very disappointing.
Lee: President Joe Biden and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki did denounce the actions of the border patrol agents on horseback. But what happened after those photos were taken has disturbed people as well. Since September 19th, the Department of Homeland Security has flown 37 flights of migrants to Haiti, full of people who didn't get a chance to claim asylum. That's because of a Trump-era public health policy called Title 42.
Gyamfi: So, Title 42 is a public health order that comes out of the CDC. Really, the title says that if there's a public health issue like the pandemic, that they can close the borders.
Lee: The Trump administration enacted Title 42 in March, 2020. A spokesperson for DHS told us that, as of this week, nearly 4,000 Haitians have been repatriated under this rule. The Homeland Security Security Alejandro Mayorkas has defended the administration's approach. Here he is on NBC's Meet the Press earlier this week.
Alejandro Mayorkas: We're in the midst of a pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control has a Title 42 authority that we exercise to protect the migrants themselves, to protect the local communities, our personnel and the American public. The pandemic is not behind us. Title 42 is a public health policy, not an immigration policy.
Lee: DHS told us that Title 42 applies to all so-called irregular migration during the pandemic, not just Haitians. But Nana Gyamfi says the rule has created a double-standard.
Gyamfi: You and I, we can go party, right, and come back from Tijuana and be fine. But just asylum-seekers cannot come across because of the pandemic. So, it's clear that the U.S. doesn't see there as being a public health crisis. They've only used this in order to keep those Black and indigenous asylum-seekers at the southern border of the United States from being able to make their lawful asylum claims.
It's actually in violation of U.S. asylum law and international asylum law. You have to at least give asylum-seekers a hearing, right, due process, to hear why they say they're coming. It was roundly and soundly criticized at the time as being completely racist, pulled out of thin air.
We thought that with the Biden administration, it would go away. We'd be done with it. But in fact, the Biden administration has doubled down, tryin' to argue that, oh yes, it's needed for public health, when just a year ago, they were saying the complete opposite.
Lee: Why is that? Why are they doubling down? I mean, they campaigned on this more humane approach to migrant, like, what is it?
Gyamfi: It's cowardice. I hate to say that. But you know, what can I say? Lookin' at 2022 and thinking to themselves that, you know, we were already being attacked even when we're keeping people from coming into the country. You know, the Republicans, the right-wing is already saying that it's open-border Biden, though no one is coming through the border, right.
And so, there has been, and it's not just showing up with immigration, it's showing up in other spaces, this reluctance on the part of the administration to stand up for those folks who literally put this administration in office for fear of upsetting the folks who actually don't want the administration in office, right.
I mean, Joe Biden, when he got to South Carolina, was fifth, okay. He was Lazarus. Black folks, immigrants, raised him from the dead. Vice President Harris wasn't even in the race anymore, right. And now, here she is, Vice President of the United States because of Black folks, including Black immigrants and other immigrants. And yet, look at where we are right now. It's unconscionable.
Lee: More with Nana Gyamfi on blackness at the border after the break.
Lee: About 13,000 Haitians are now in immigration proceedings in the United States. But they face along, difficult road before achieving legal status. And what we saw at the U.S. border, all the chaos and desperation, it didn't happen overnight. Nana Gyamfi, of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, says to understand the current situation, we have to take a step back.
Gyamfi: So, with the Haitians arriving at the border, first of all, there's an ebb and flow that we've seen since 2007, 2008, and it always relates to what's happening on the island in terms of the political violence, what's relating on the island in terms of natural disasters, right. So, we have earthquakes.
And so, it's not surprising that as we look at what is happening now, that you have a combination of the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that occurred, as well as the assassination of their president, which has left them really with no standing government, and the violence that therefore has escalated. It was already at a rate that was super dangerous, which is why the United States granted TPS to Haitians that were in this country; at least the opportunity for TPS. They didn't just hand it out. You gotta apply.
Lee: TPS, temporary protected status, it's a designation given some foreign citizens living here when the U.S. deems their home country so dangerous, because of a natural disaster or armed conflict, that they can remain in the U.S. The Biden administration granted TPS to Haitians living in the U.S. this May before the country's president was assassinated in July and the devastating earthquake in August. Nana also mentioned Daniel Foote, the former top U.S. diplomat to Haiti, who resigned in protest just last week.
Gyamfi: He said, look, this place is so dangerous, you're telling Americans we can't walk around here. And yet, now, you are deporting Haitians to the same place? And he said that in his resignation letter, just disgusted with the way that Haitians have been treated.
Lee: Something that's important to understand the current situation is that many of the folks at the border, these past few weeks, did not come directly from Haiti.
Gyamfi: Some of them are coming all the way from Brazil, from Argentina, from Chile.
Lee: After Haiti's catastrophic earthquake in 2010 and the disease and unrest that followed, thousands of Haitians traveled to South America, many to Brazil, which was promising construction jobs to build stadiums and infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. But then those projects ended. And in 2019, Brazil elected a right-wing government.
Gyamfi: Which, as we know from this country, when you have a right-wing government that's openly racist, people start attacking Black people in the street. And so, they left, in some cases, crossing 11 borders, ten countries, taking the bus, walking across rivers, stepping over dead bodies.
But people are still persisting, still resilient, carrying their children on their shoulders, sometimes closing their eyes and ears so the children don't have to experience even additional trauma, to get to the northern border. For the United States to then just put them on planes and deport them back, really, it's beyond cruel. It's beyond inhumane. It's just immoral.
Lee: hm. Yeah. You know, it looks so different, obviously, under the previous administration and administrations past. We saw really abhorrent treatment of migrants. But we haven't necessarily seen, you know, the response to Black migrants. Was the treatment that the Haitian migrants got at the border different from other migrants?
Gyamfi: When you look at the way that Black asylum-seekers are treated generally, the anti-blackness makes it different, right. So, different people are discriminated against; different folks of color, even within this country. But anti-blackness is its own, like, extra crispy, special sauce version of discrimination. And we see that happen in the migrant space.
Lee: For example, Gyamfi says the Afghan refugees, many of whom fear for their lives after assisting the U.S., have been treated differently from the Haitians whose own lives are at risk.
Gyamfi: So, in this moment where we see this country opening its arms, as well it should, to 90,000-plus people from Afghanistan, refugees, people that they're willing to give humanitarian relief to in the form of acceptance into this country, come on, now; it's a stark contrast.
We can talk about detention rates. We can talk about how Black migrants are put in solitary confinement six times more, how we're detained for months and sometimes years. We can talk about how our bonds are sometimes, you know, 50 times more than the average bond.
We can talk about a lot of pieces in terms of how we are disproportionately impacted because of our blackness. But I think the difference in the treatment in this moment between people seeking refuge from Afghanistan and people seeking refuge from Haiti and other Black countries tells a story.
Lee: I've always said that anti-Black racism is America's favorite, most perfected kind of racism. And I guess we shouldn't be surprised that that would then extend to our policy; our immigration policies. But I wanna kinda, like, push in a little further to that notion that even before what we saw happening along the border, that Black migrants were being treated differently in detention rates. Walk us through some of that just so we have a sense of, like, what the reality has been even before this one.
Gyamfi: So, Black migrants, foreign born (I'm not talkin' about folks like me born in the United States, right), family from Ghana, so like a Toyota, made in Kansas, still claiming home, (LAUGH) right, but we're not foreign born, 8% of the Black population in this country is foreign born.
20% of the people facing deportation, being deported on criminal grounds, are Black. How is that happening? It's happening because we're Black. So, we're being racially profiled. We're being over-policed, just as African Americans are, right.
And so, when we look at the disparity with African Americans, we understand it's not because African Americans are engaging in more criminal activity. It's because of the anti-blackness of policing. Well, that extends to us, too. If I'm driving the car, if you're driving the car, Trymaine, if my brother's driving the car.
We're all being pulled over for drivin' while Black, walking while Black, shopping while Black. And all of that has impacts not just in terms of what happens to us in the criminal, legal world, but what happens to us in immigration, detention, deportation space. So, it creates this police-to-deportation pipeline.
Lee: There's somethin' specific about the dynamic between the United States and Haiti in particular that has kinda led to this? 'Cause there's a history here, certainly.
Gyamfi: Unforgivable blackness. Unforgivable blackness. They revolted. They rebelled. They showed Black people that we could fight our way out of enslavement. And remember that Haiti just didn't do that for itself, right. And so, Haiti also was a support (material support) to African Americans who, at that time, were not American, right.
So, I'll say to Africans who were enslaved, Africans who were free, who were trying to be free, Haiti assisted folks. You could get to Haiti. You could get material support. You could come back. Haitians came and assisted. Haiti was a rallyin' cry.
Remember Santo Domingo, one of Frederick Douglass' favorite rallying cries. Santo Domingo was what Haiti was called at that time. It was a beacon and stood for the ways in which Black people yearning to be free could beat back and defeat European colonizer, racist violence.
And that has always been the case. The United States has always attempted to control Haiti because they've always known what Haiti means to Black people in this country. And we know that when Black people in this country decide that something is so, with fervent belief-- we make it so.
And so, that example is an example that they've always wanted to turn around and actually have us thinking about Haitians as victims, Haitians as folks that don't got it together, you know, Haiti as a country that is cursed. No, Haiti's a country that has had hundreds of years of intentional attack and, in spite of that, still they rise and we all rise with them as Black people throughout the diaspora.
Lee: Nana Gyamfi is the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. As always, if there's anything on your mind, anything at all, you can tweet me @TrymaineLee or write to us at IntoAmerica@NBCUNI.com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Joshua Sirotiak, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you next Thursday.