Images of U.S. Border Patrol agents pursuing Haitian migrants on horseback to prevent thousands of asylum seekers from entering the U.S. have sparked widespread condemnation. But human rights advocates say the mistreatment of Haitian migrants is nothing new and that the recent incident at the U.S.-Mexico border is just the latest example of discrimination Haitians face as they seek safety in the United States.
“The Biden administration should actively confront and address the history of systemic racism in U.S. immigration enforcement, and urgently overhaul racially discriminatory policies,” said Alison Parker, managing director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program, in an email to VOA.
Testifying before Congress this week, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas promised a swift investigation of the tactics Border Patrol agents deployed against Haitian migrants.
“DHS does not tolerate the abuse of migrants in our custody and we take these allegations very seriously,” the department said in a statement. “We are committed to processing migrants in a safe, orderly, and humane way. We can and must do this in a way that ensures the safety and dignity of migrants.”
For more than a year, migrants of all nationalities have been turned back at the U.S. border under a federal health code, Title 42, that precludes them from filing asylum claims during the coronavirus pandemic. Implemented by the former Trump administration, Title 42 has been retained by the Biden administration with exemptions for unaccompanied minors and some families with very young children.
While U.S. authorities have used Title 42 to expel thousands of Haitian migrants encamped on the banks of the Rio Grande near an international bridge in Del Rio, Texas, immigrant rights advocates say rapid mass expulsions of Haitians long predate the pandemic.
During the Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier regimes, which lasted more than two decades and ended in 1986, hundreds of thousands fled Haiti. And through the years, immigration watchers say, the U.S. government under successive administrations created policies that blocked, expelled and deported Haitians.
The Haitian Bridge Alliance and Human Rights First said that in 1978, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) established a program to expel Haitian asylum applicants as rapidly as possible, resulting in more than 4,000 Haitians being removed from the U.S.
Yet, Haitian asylum seekers continued to come to the United States. Between 1981 and 1991, about 25,000 Haitians were interdicted at sea and many returned to Haiti without being screened for asylum relief.
More than a decade later, under the Obama administration, the government adopted the policy of metering, a practice that limited the number of migrants entering U.S. territory, and immediately turned back asylum seekers at ports of entry. The method was solidified under the Trump administration, which eventually adopted a policy called Migrant Protection Policy (MPP), which required asylum-seekers to await their proceedings in Mexico, often in the country’s dangerous northern border cities.
Relying on a health code
Immigrant advocates have sued the U.S. government over the use of Title 42, and a federal judge earlier this month ordered a halt to the expulsion of migrant families. The Biden administration is appealing the decision, which would go into effect Sept. 30.
In the meantime, U.S. immigration officials are continuing the repatriation flights. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that since Sunday, 1,949 Haitian nationals had been returned to Haiti on 17 flights.
According to the DHS, 3,100 migrants remained in the Del Rio sector and 3,901 Haitian nationals had been moved from the Del Rio camp to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody or to other sectors of the United States border to either be expelled via Title 42 or placed into removal proceedings.
Officials also said they believe “several thousand” Haitian migrants crossed back to Mexico. At one point, there were 15,000 people at the camp, two-thirds of them parents and children traveling as families.
A DHS spokesperson told VOA repatriation flights will continue on a regular basis and migrants who cannot be expelled under Title 42 or do not have a legal basis to remain in the U.S. are being placed in expedited or full removal proceedings.
“Individuals who are not immediately repatriated are either placed in Alternatives to Detention, detained in an ICE facility, or released with a legal document (either a Notice to Appear in court or a notice to report to an ICE office for further immigration processing),” the spokesperson said.
Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, said the U.S. is “flouting” not only international human rights standards and international treaties, but also “our own law.”
“And that’s what’s so shocking and disgraceful,” Bell said.
Bell sees the low rate of asylum case approvals for Haitian migrants as symptomatic of systemic racism that immigrants of color, especially Black immigrants, face generally in U.S. society.
“And if we look at the rates of approval, particularly for people from Haiti, for example, they’re just not given the same equitable fair access to asylum as other people because their claims are summarily not considered eligible instead of actually probing to see if they would meet a standard,” she said.
DHS did not respond to repeated VOA requests for comment.
However, while historically rejecting many migrants at sea and on land, the United States has given more than 50,000 Haitians Temporary Protected Status, a designation that allows individuals from nations suffering armed conflict or natural disasters to live and work in the United States for a limited period of time.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, so far in fiscal year 2021, 10,721 Haitian nationals have been put into the deportation process in the immigration court system, a significant spike over last year’s number of 4,537.
Horses and migrants
Responding to the firestorm created by the actions of mounted Border Patrol agents, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday the U.S. government is working with the International Organization on Migration to ensure that returning migrants are met at Haitian airports and provided immediate assistance.
Psaki said President Joe Biden has been horrified by the photos of the border patrol officers on horseback and added they have “taken very specific action” and launched an investigation.
On Thursday, DHS suspended the use of horse patrols in Del Rio, Texas.