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The Unethical Treatment of Haitians at the Texas Border

The Biden administration’s waning credibility on humanitarian migration policy.

Words: Robert Irwin
Pictures: Avi Theret

Over the past week, significant media attention has focused on the US southern border, where tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants have been crossing to the US in hopes of obtaining protection. While some are being permitted to remain in the United States, presumably to allow them to initiate asylum applications, others are being deported immediately to Haiti. As anti-migration advocates have raised the alarm over the arrival of large numbers of Haitian migrants, with Texas governor Greg Abbott claiming hyperbolically that it “poses life-threatening risks” to Texans, the Biden administration has responded by ramping up deportation flights to Haiti, prompting the resignation of the senior US diplomatic envoy to Haiti. Meanwhile, photos of border patrol agents on horseback chasing down Haitian migrants have gone viral as they recall racist brutality against “Black people fleeing bondage.” The Biden administration’s promise to make the US immigration system “fair, orderly and humane” no doubt implies a complicated, even monumental, task. However, the recent treatment of Haitian migrants spotlighted policy decisions that seriously damage its credibility regarding claims to humanitarianism.

Recent events in Haiti have significantly increased the precarity of its population, including the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in early July, a major earthquake in August followed immediately by heavy rains and flooding from Tropical Storm Grace, and escalating violence against civilians carried by organized criminal organizations with complicity of government authorities. Nonetheless, many of the Haitians arriving at the US border are not those fleeing these most recent blows to the safety and wellbeing in their homeland. Indeed, some left Haiti over a half dozen years ago and have been living as far away as Chile. Our own Humanizing Deportation fieldwork team members have observed that many of the estimated 4000 Haitians who had settled in Tijuana in 2016 have left, with an area referred to as recently as July as Little Haiti now populated mainly by newly arriving Central Americans.

Decades ago, Haitians often tried to migrate to the United States by boat; however, beginning in the 1980s, the United States launched what became a highly effective policy of intercepting “Haitian boat people” while still at sea and returning them to Haiti without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum in the United States. Migrating through Mexico has become the best option for many Haitians hoping to reach US soil. However, this frequently takes them on a route via South America through Central America, including the notoriously perilous Darien Gap. Moreover, Mexican authorities have been quietly complicit in obstructing the movement of Haitian immigrants who cross its own southern border, resulting in reports of incidents of brutality at the hands of Mexican National Guard and National Migration Institute not unlike those of the US Customs and Border Enforcement agents. Attempts in recent weeks by Haitians to move more safely through Mexico by forming caravans have been violently thwarted by Mexican authorities.

Migrants persist against all these obstacles because they believe they have a chance of ultimately obtaining some form of protection in the United States. While many are being characterized as asylum seekers, few are likely to successfully obtain asylum. Indeed over the past two decades, annual rates of positive outcome for asylum among Haitian applicants have rarely risen above 25%, and the running rate for 2021 is less than 15%.

Even prior to this summer’s string of devastating blows to Haiti’s political and economic infrastructure, however, the United States publicly recognized, in the words of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” leading him to grant Temporary Protected Status to Haitians residing in the United States as of May 21, 2021, and to later revise the program’s cutoff arrival date to July 29. This gives any Haitian registering for this program authorization to live and work legally in the US for at least eighteen months.

There is nothing moral or ethical about deporting migrants without making any effort to find out whether their removal will put them in imminent danger.

It is not clear what the Haitian migrants expect. As indicated above, it is likely that a large majority are not in a position to obtain asylum and Temporary Protected Status is available only to migrants who had arrived in the United States by July. Reports have circulated that the migrants have been misled by misinformation spreading via social media regarding opportunities for legal entry into the United States.

Instead, many migrants have been subject to immediate deportation, without even being given the chance to make an initial case for an asylum claim. These express removals have been carried out throughout the pandemic, through an emergency order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March of 2020 known as Title 42. The policy, which was justified by a perceived “serious danger of the introduction of [a communicable] disease” has come increasingly under question especially since the spring of 2021 when vaccinations became widely available to everyone aged twelve and above in the United States. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has urged the US to “swiftly” put an end to this policy that has allowed the United States to remove nearly a million migrants over the past eleven months without considering whether these removals might put them in serious danger. Over one hundred organizations joined together in June to exhort the Biden administration to “fully rescind this policy for all populations” immediately. Nonetheless, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued a new order extending Title 42 in August. Furthermore, as a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to halt Title 42 expulsions upon reviewing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and concluding that he expected the suit would be successful, the Biden administration immediately appealed in defense of this controversial Trump era policy.

While some continued to have patience with the Biden administration, at this point it is difficult to see how or when the Biden administration plans to treat migrants more humanely. Alejandro Mayorkas’s recent statement issued in relation to the outrage generated by news of the treatment of Haitian migrants by US authorities that “we do not conduct ourselves in an immoral way” and that “ [we] do not conduct ourselves in an unethical way” rings hollow.

There is nothing moral or ethical about deporting migrants without making any effort to find out whether their removal will put them in imminent danger. Mexico’s continued complicity with the US on migration deterrence programs, including a new effort to deport Haitians from Mexico to keep them from reaching the US border, presents serious human rights issues. Asylum policy seems to be ever more about preventing migrants from even applying. However, perhaps a bigger moral dilemma is not that of the obstacles faced by the many vulnerable migrants who seek to reach the United States, but rather that of those who do get across the border and even have the opportunity to apply for asylum, but have little chance of success, and for whom deportation back to their homeland will result, if not in death, in long term misery. Until we figure out a better way of dealing with these migrants, as well as the many long term undocumented immigrants living in the United States, Homeland Security will continue to struggle to portray its activities as humane.

Robert McKee Irwin is the deputy director of the Global Migration Center at the University of California, Davis.

Robert Irwin

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