Selective Compassion: The US Approach to Haitians Hasn’t Changed in Hundreds of Years

Immigrant advocates display signs during a rally to protest the decision from Trump's Department of Homeland Security to terminate Temporary Protected Status for over 50,000 refugees from Haiti on November 21, 2017, in New York City. (Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / Getty Images)Immigrant advocates display signs during a rally to protest the decision from Trump’s Department of Homeland Security to terminate Temporary Protected Status for over 50,000 refugees from Haiti on November 21, 2017, in New York City. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images)

The November 2017 decision by Trump’s Department of Homeland Security to end Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, effective summer 2019, is the latest echo in the United States’ pattern of disregard toward the people of Haiti. It evokes a history of selective compassion as a guiding principle of US refugee policy. Haitians — due to the obstacles of race and politics — have often found themselves on the losing side of this equation. This latest action, however, illustrates the current administration’s all-out disavowal of compassion in its treatment of refugees and people with conditional status, and its embrace of a punitive approach toward some of our most vulnerable residents.

The history of US-Haitian relations vis-a-vis migration and administrative interventions is long, eluding both liberal narratives of the US as a “land of opportunity” and critiques of US empire. One of the earliest migrations from Haiti (then called by its colonial name, Saint-Domingue) to the present-day US occurred during the American Revolutionary War, when the French conscripted over 750 Saint-Domingues to fight with the colonies. These Chasseurs-Volontaires — whose status as free or enslaved is ambiguous — migrated to and fought in Georgia, without any promise of their own freedom or sovereignty. A few years later, the first stream of what we might now call Haitian refugees occurred during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), when whites fled the Black slave uprising. The reception of white Saint-Domingue refugees — with their slaves no less — helped crystallize an idea of the US as a safe harbor while also cementing an image of Black Haiti as violent. In the ensuing years, Haiti proved to be lucrative and strategic for Americans, and pivotal to the United States’ hemispheric interests. The US’s most direct intervention occurred from 1915 to 1934, when it occupied Haiti under the guise of building democracy, although the US invasion was precipitated by worries about internal turmoil and other western powers’ machinations threatening US interests there.

Today, approximately 676,000 Haitian Americans reside in the United States, and this population has been shaped and constrained by US immigration policy. Most are here through work- and family-based sponsorship, but political turmoil during the 1960s to 1990s produced surges of emigrants who exceeded annual per-country visa quotas, or were inadmissible under existing preference categories. The main recourse, then, was admission as a refugee or asylee, which requires proof of having a “well-founded fear” of persecution in one’s home country. By the 1960s, the adjudication of asylum applications aligned with Cold War objectives to favor those from communist regimes. So great was this imperative that the US overlooked human rights abuses in repressive dictatorships if they were anti-communist allies. In Haiti, the Duvaliers — president Francois and then his successor son Jean-Claude — abetted US spying operations in Cuba, and in return, received financial and military aid. During this time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) repeatedly denied refugee or asylum status to Haitians fleeing the island, reasoning that they were economic, not political, migrants.

The post-Duvalier era, beginning with Jean-Claude’s ouster in 1986, brought little relief, and the outflow of Haitian refugees — aboard rickety boats in dangerous conditions — continued, as did US indifference. Not only did the INS continue to bar their entry and reject asylum applications at disproportionate rates, but in 1991, the administration of George H.W. Bush also began interning Haitian refugees at Guantánamo Bay, where they awaited court hearings that usually resulted in repatriation. It was only in the early 1990s that significant numbers of Americans started to acknowledge the racism embedded in this display of indifference when the Congressional Black Caucus protested.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a provisional status subject to periodic review, was first extended to Haitians in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, allowing them to live and work legally in the United States. When the Trump administration chose to terminate it last month, the Department of Homeland Security explained in a statement that the status would be ending because “those extraordinary but temporary conditions caused by the 2010 earthquake no longer exist.” The ripple effects of this action will go far beyond the lives of those set to be deprived of the status’s protections. This year, Haitians abroad will send home $2 billion, nearly the size of Haiti’s annual operating budget. The end of remittances to families and communities will mean the inability to rebuild earthquake-damaged homes, send children to school and cover many basic necessities. Additionally, while Trump has declared going after immigrants a priority, ending TPS will likely increase the number of undocumented people, as nearly 60,000 people will fall out of status. This probable outcome, moreover, calls attention to the challenges of undocumented Black people in the US — numbering about 565,000 — whose experiences have often eluded the attention of the public and immigrant activist organizations, and prompted the formation of groups like Black Alliance for Just Immigration and UndocuBlack. About 16 percent of Black immigrants in the US from the Caribbean and 13 percent of those from Africa are undocumented, and they are largely concentrated in New York and Florida.

In May, Haitian American novelist Edwidge Danticat wrote about her native country and the limbo people faced as a result of TPS’s uncertain future. She discussed her young friend David, who, like “So many other immigrants who have made a life in this country … who are parents of US-born children … is living in constant fear of being plucked out of his life at a moment’s notice.” If TPS were revoked, a hypothetical at the time, David “will be too terrified to leave his house, for fear of being deported. He will not be able to complete the college degree that he is working to pay for himself.” Asked what he would like to say to then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly and the Trump administration, David said he would remind them that TPS recipients are “fully invested, fully committed to this country…. So many of us have already made a difference here and so many of us still can.” Extending temporary protected status would be, thus, “sensible” but also humane, as many “have nowhere else to go.”

The Trump administration has chosen the path that will make David’s worst fears a reality. In the process, the US has betrayed its self-proclaimed role as a haven for the world’s downtrodden — a role to which we have often failed to live up in ways that are all too familiar to Haitians. As TPS was recently revoked for Nicaraguans and may be terminated for other Central Americans, we face both daunting challenges and important opportunities. The indifference and disdain shown by the administration to immigrants and refugees presents an opportunity to forge a diverse and powerful coalition to stand up against these punitive politics and policies. Let us take up this challenge.