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Haitian Asylum Seekers Take the Biden Administration to Court

A federal court heard arguments in a lawsuit accusing the administration of racial discrimination and rights violations.

A federal court in Washington, D.C., heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit accusing the Biden administration of racial discrimination and rights violations of Haitian asylum seekers. The suit was brought on behalf of 11 Haitian asylum seekers who were abused by U.S. border agents as more than 15,000 people, mostly from Haiti, were forced to stay in a makeshift border encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuña-Del Rio International Bridge in Texas. One of the plaintiffs is Mirard Joseph, the asylum seeker whose image went viral after being photographed while a Border Patrol agent on horseback lashed him with split reins, grabbed his neck and gripped Joseph by the shirt collar. “This is a critical junction in our country here in the United States as we make sure to uphold human rights and understanding seeking asylum is a human right,” says Guerline Jozef, executive director of immigrant advocacy organization Haitian Bridge Alliance, which helped bring the case on behalf of asylum seekers. “We will continue to push forward and make sure that accountability is served but also we have systematic change in the way that we receive people in the United States.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A federal court in Washington, D.C., heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit accusing the Biden administration of racial discrimination and rights violations of Haitian asylum seekers. The suit was brought by the Haitian Bridge Alliance and other immigrant rights groups in 2021 on behalf of 11 Haitian asylum seekers who described being abused by U.S. border agents as more than 15,000 people, mostly Haitian, were forced to stay in a makeshift border encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Acuña-Del Rio International Bridge in Texas. Photographs and video footage from 2021 showed Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing, grabbing, whipping Haitian asylum seekers in Del Rio, and sparked widespread condemnation. One border agent was heard screaming obscenities at asylum seekers there in Texas, including children.

BORDER AGENT: Hey, you use your women? This is why your country [bleep], because you use your women for this.

AMY GOODMAN: After the attack in Del Rio, Texas, President Biden condemned the, quote, “horrible” treatment of the Haitian migrants and promised a swift investigation.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It’s outrageous. I promise you, those people will pay. They will be — an investigation underway now, and there will be consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: While the investigation was underway, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said horse border patrols were suspended.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: The investigation into what occurred has not yet concluded. We know that those images painfully conjured up the worst elements of our nation’s ongoing battle against systemic racism.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mayorkas in 2021. During a news conference last year, journalist April Ryan questioned Mayorkas about the attack by Border Patrol agents that sparked national outcry.

APRIL RYAN: The southern border is not just Mexicans. It is Haitians, it’s Africans, as we’ve seen, particularly with that issue with the Haitians being whipped with the reins on the horses. But what is there —

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Well, let me just correct you right there, because —

APRIL RYAN: It’s correct.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: — actually, the investigation concluded that the whipping did not occur.

APRIL RYAN: I’m sorry. I saw it differently. They were whipped with something from the horse.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is Mirard Joseph, who was photographed as a Border Patrol agent on horseback lashed him with split reins, grabbed his neck and gripped Joseph by the shirt collar. After the assault, Joseph and his family were detained, then deported to Haiti.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, an immigrant advocacy group that provides humanitarian assistance to Haitians and other Black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa.

Guerline, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain why you’re in Washington, D.C. What happened to Mirard Joseph and his family members?

GUERLINE JOZEF: Thank you, and good morning, Amy.

We are currently in D.C. because yesterday we were in court to be able to highlight the realities of what we just saw on the screen. That did happen. It happened, and we have the proof. Everybody saw it. So, yesterday we came to court to be able to address those issues, because the U.S. government reached out asking for a dismissal of our case. So we continue to be able to fight to make sure that justice is rendered, to make sure that people do not forget the realities of what happened in Del Rio in 2021.

We filed our lawsuit in December of 2021. It wasn’t until yesterday we were able to have our first hearing for the judge to let us know if they will decide to continue with the case. And what was very critical, as well, is that we had four of the plaintiffs present in the courtroom to show that they are here, it wasn’t just something that happened, they are people, and we want to make sure that continues to be the case. So, we had Mirard Joseph, whom everybody saw the pictures, the videos of what he was subjected to, in addition to three other plaintiffs who were able to be there and share their stories with us, but really to humanize, to put human faces in how the anti-Black racism in our immigration system is continued to be a space that we have to fight.

AMY GOODMAN: And then explain what happened to Joseph’s family and he himself, I mean, not only what happened right there on the border, but the detention and the ultimate deportation to Haiti, and what you’re calling for in the lawsuit.

GUERLINE JOZEF: Amy, one of the hardest things that we had to deal with is the fact that the U.S. government tried to erase the very fact that the people existed, by expulsion and deportation. And one thing that yesterday the people were recounting when we were talking to them is the fact that they were held, caged, for over two weeks, without access to any hygiene, and then deported. One of them shared with us yesterday that when he finally was chained and deported and he arrived in Haiti, they gave him a piece of bread. And when he tasted the bread, it tasted sour. It wasn’t until later he realized that the taste that was in his mouth didn’t come from the bread, but from the fact that he was held without access to brushing his teeth for so long.

So, that’s why we continue to fight. And we want to make sure we hold the administration accountable, we hold the system accountable for the inhuman treatment of people seeking protection and safety. And Mirard and the 11 other plaintiffs are a representation of the 15,000 Haitians and other people who are under the bridge in the inhumane injustice and mistreatment that they received and the abuse and the violence of deportation and expulsion.

AMY GOODMAN: Just days after the U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback were filmed chasing and grabbing the Haitian asylum seekers in Del Rio, Texas, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti resigned in protest over the Biden administration’s mass deportation of Haitian asylum seekers. In a letter, the longtime diplomat Daniel Foote wrote, quote, “I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees.” Guerline Jozef, can you talk about the significance of this U.S. official resigning? Are you bringing this into your case? And what’s happened to all the other people we see in the photographs in addition to Mirard Joseph and his family?

GUERLINE JOZEF: Yeah, the resignation of Ambassador Foote was also a critical indication of human morality — right? — for somebody to say, “I will not stand by and continue to agree to this type of inhumane treatment.” So, we applaud and continue to say “thank you” to Ambassador Foote for standing up on behalf of what is right, on behalf of human dignity, because, I will be honest with you, history will definitely judge harshly the impact of what happened.

And we understand that many, many laws need to be changed. We understand that this is a critical junction in our country here in the United States as we make sure to uphold the human rights and understanding seeking asylum is a human right, and also understanding many of the reasons why people are fleeing countries like Haiti. U.S. foreign policies are major factors of what’s happening, currently dealing with gang violence, currently dealing with political turmoils, currently seeing how there is this big movement to send Kenyan police force into Haiti, but at the same time understanding that the United States just put a warning on the Bahamas and Jamaica, with countries we just learned that will also be a part of the special envoy, special police force to Haiti, making sure that we hold folks accountable and let them know we are watching and the world is watching, that justice must prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: In your lawsuit, are you asking that deported Haitians be allowed back into the United States to fight fairly their immigration cases?

GUERLINE JOZEF: Yes. There are a few things we are asking for. We’ll be able to share more as the case continues. But one of the things we are asking is accountability, justice, for those people to be able to get a fair access to asylum, fair access to protection, as they continue to barely survive, because the conditions in Haiti continue to be extremely difficult, and the deportation and expulsions of those people were found to be unacceptable.

So, we will continue to fight. And we are grateful that the judge listened to our request to continue the case, and even though the government said that our case had no basis. And what the world saw is that what we witnessed. But we will continue to push forward and make sure that accountability is served but also we have systematic change in the way that we receive people in the United States, and making sure that we have a fair, just immigration system where people can continue to seek asylum and seek protection.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about President Biden facing more backlash over his handling of the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, following reports the White House is considering executive action to deny the right to request asylum for migrants who enter through nonofficial ports of entry. The authority was previously invoked by the Trump administration. In response, the Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal said, quote, “Cruel enforcement-only policies have been tried for 30 years and simply do not work. Democrats cannot continue to take pages out of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller’s playbook — we need to lead with dignity and humanity,” Jayapal said. Your response, Guerline?

GUERLINE JOZEF: We are 100% in line with Congresswoman Jayapal. And we continue to make sure that is at the center of everything that we do.

And we call on President Biden that he stand to the ideal and the values that he promised to save the soul of America. Those policies and executive orders that are being contemplated is the opposite of saving the soul of America. And we will say again, if they move forward with those only deterrence policies, that, as we all mentioned and have seen, are reflecting of former President Trump and his administration and Stephen Miller, those will become the legacy of President Biden. And as we said before, history will really judge harshly those outcomes. So, again, we call on President Biden to center any decisions at the U.S.-Mexico border into dignity, compassion, fairness and human lives.

So we continue to push back on those ideas. We will continue to coordinate and collaborate and say “thank you” to those who are standing on the right side of history. And we are asking President Biden to do the right thing and make sure that we follow policies that will save lives.

Amy, this past week we had a woman from Jamaica who died.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, Guerline Jozef, but continue to cover this issue, of course, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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