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In recent days the human rights community has reacted with horror to shocking images of mounted policemen fighting desperate Haitians who had amassed along the US border and of women and small children deported to a nearly-failed state experiencing ecological and political crisis. Some of these children are citizens of diverse South American countries, born during their parents’ sojourn across a continent in search for a better future.
As usually happens, different political forces are interpreting the crisis through their own political lenses and calling attention to distinct dimensions of the plight of the Haitians. For example, Republicans and other political opponents of President Joe Biden have used the crisis to argue that Biden’s criticism of his predecessor’s immigration policies was ill advised, and that it had the consequence of encouraging more people to attempt to cross the border irregularly.
Biden also faced severe criticism from within his own coalition. To many, the situation evokes memories of slavery, segregation, and brutal racism. It did not help that media outlets published the untrue interpretation that the reins the mounted agents were using to control their horses were whips they were using to lash people. Biden responded to the pressure by condemning the Border Patrol agents. Unsurprisingly, some political forces have concluded that the whole spectacle shows the country remains as racist as ever.
Other of Biden’s critics focus not on race but on the dire situation in Haiti itself. In particular, his special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned to protest the deportation of people to the island. Critics like Foote argue that the treatment of Haitians is inhumane. The US is party to international conventions that prohibit returning people to situations where they are likely to face persecution. A broader definition of the case for asylum has become accepted in the past half century, one that acknowledges that sometimes people become refugees because of general political or natural crisis. According to this latter criterion, Haitians clearly qualify.
The fact that many Haitians have already spent time in South or Central American countries complicates their legal case, however. By some (not all) interpretations of international law, asylum seekers are required to settle in the first safe haven they can. We have read of Haitians who complained they were not accepted in Chile, or who could not fit in in Brazil. They understandably feel attracted to the United States, with its prosperity and its thriving Haitian community. The Covid-19 pandemic, economic difficulties, and political tensions in the region made things even more difficult for Haitians.
What is to be done? The only clear humanitarian choice is to grant some kind of temporary protected status to many of the people who are already in camps on the US-Mexico border. However, extreme care should be taken that this policy does not provoke yet more unsafe migration. There is a chance to implement bold and creative solutions that would discourage mass caravans of asylum seekers, which we know inflame citizens’ fears and resentments. The US (and other countries in the Western Hemisphere too) should allow people to apply for some form of asylum from within Haiti. Humanitarian groups in the US and other countries should be allowed to sponsor refugees.
It is of course even more important to help Haitians to build peace and prosperity in Haiti, but this is an even harder problem. It will require a creating a functioning state and the conditions conducive to economic activity. The history of international interventions in the country is not a pretty one, but the predominant narrative that outside interventions are the principal problem ailing the country needs to be challenged. Ultimate it is in the best interest of all countries in the Western Hemisphere to help Haitians help themselves.