The people of Haiti, who are no strangers to dealing with political crises and natural disasters, are currently in the midst of recovering from both.
As Blavity previously reported, the country’s political system and society were rocked by the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July, sending the country into political turmoil amid leadership struggles and various factions attempting to fill the vacuum left by a government in disarray. The country’s situation has been made much more precarious by last month’s major earthquake, which killed over 1,400 people and left high levels of devastation in a country still recovering from a devastating quake in 2010.
Amid the chaos, the United States has played a key role in determining the international response to the developing situation in Haiti. Given the close proximity of the U.S. to Haiti and its history of involvement in the island nation’s affairs, American policy has a huge impact on Haiti.
While President Joe Biden has wisely limited American interference in Haiti during this time of crisis, several recent moves taken by the Biden administration have drawn heavy criticism from Americans across the political spectrum as well as from Haitians, who are understandably wary of continued American intervention.
Here is what you need to know about five recent missteps in the Biden administration’s policies toward Haiti:
1. The Biden administration is rejecting thousands of Haitian immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers
The political and physical crises challenging Haiti have created a significant outflow of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom have traveled through Latin America and crossed or attempted to cross the southern U.S. border with Mexico. For example, thousands of Haitian migrants created a temporary camp under a bridge in the Texas border city of Del Rio, which was recently cleared by U.S. officials.
The Biden administration’s policy has been to discourage Haitian migrants from coming to the U.S. and to detain and deport those who make it to American soil. These policies have been criticized from both sides of the aisle. Conservatives have spent months criticizing the Biden Administration, and especially Vice President Kamala Harris and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, for mishandling the growing surge of immigrants attempting to unlawfully cross into the U.S. and not taking the border crisis seriously.
Meanwhile, liberals and progressives have chided the administration for its treatment of Haitian immigrants and migrants. For example, the Daily Beast reports that Black Voters Matter co-founders Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown have criticized the administration for its double standard of rejecting refugees from Haiti while welcoming those fleeing countries like Afghanistan.
Criticism of the Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian immigrants in particular has existed since shortly after the president took office; one example from earlier in the year involved the “heartless” decision to deport Paul Pierrilus to Haiti despite him never having been to the country before. Since then, Biden has been accused of continuing the harsh immigration policies of former President Donald Trump. Despite the continuing complaints against the Biden administration's policies toward Haitians in America, Secretary Mayorkas has promised to ramp up deportations of migrants using fast-track policies put in place during the pandemic.
2. “Slave catcher” border patrol agents
As Blavity previously reported, the Biden administration was recently forced to denounce the practices of its own border patrol agents in Del Rio, who were captured on video riding on horseback while wielding whips against Haitian migrants. The horrible images were describes as “horrific” by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, while others accused the agents’ attacks against asylum seekers as a violation of international law.
.@CBP is whipping Haitian refugees seeking asylum.????
This is both grotesquely inhumane & also illegal. Seeking asylum is a human right. It is accomplished by crossing the border and asking for asylum. Blocking asylum seekers violates American law. pic.twitter.com/vVJKkvUBRU
— Qasim Rashid, Esq. (@QasimRashid) September 20, 2021
Furthermore, the image of government agents on horseback chasing Black people and using whips against them obviously evokes the memory of slave patrols and anti-Black lynching parties that terrorized Black Americans for hundreds of years of this country’s history. Representative Maxine Waters denounced the patrols as attempting to “take us back to slavery days and worse than that.“
Maxine Waters: Border patrol agents riding on horseback to control migrants are trying to "take us back to slavery days and worse than that." pic.twitter.com/uLnBQXZX50
— Mike Berg (@MikeKBerg) September 22, 2021
Subsequent reports have disputed details of the initial story, such as whether the ropes being held are whips or merely horse reins. Nevertheless, Secretary Mayorkas has now announced that agents would no longer patrol the Del Rio area on horseback.
3. Possible migrant detention at Guantánamo Bay
NBC News recently reported that the Department of Homeland Security was advertising for guards who were fluent in Spanish and Haitian Creole to work at the American military facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, implying that there are plans to house Haitian migrants there. The Guantánamo site, controversial in its use as a detention center for terror suspects, often without trial, has also served as an immigration detention center since 2002. President Barack Obama spent the entirety of his administration promising to close the American facility at Guantánamo but never did so.
White House Press Secretary Psaki denied that the administration was planning on using the Guantánamo facility for Haitians. Nevertheless, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the potential plan to house Haitian migrants at Guantánamo “utterly shameful” in a tweet responding to the NBC story.
Utterly shameful. https://t.co/yWNKTCVa24
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) September 22, 2021
4. Alienation of White House allies in government
These statements coming from people like Representatives Waters and Ocasio-Cortez and activists like Albright and Brown suggest that the Biden administration is alienating its own base through its treatment of Haitians during the current crises. Biden relied heavily on Black votes and progressive support in his electoral victory, but many people in these camps have expressed frustration or disappointment that the Biden agenda has not sufficiently addressed their concerns.
A recent Washington Post article reports that the treatment of Haitians along the border is adding to Black leaders' growing frustration with the Biden administration's lack of progress over issues such as police reform and voting rights. Black voters were key in Biden and Congressional Democrats assuming power this year, and Black people remain an important constituent for Democrats' chances of retaining power in 2022 and 2024.
The most notable dissent coming from within the Biden camp came this past week when U.S. Special Envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote resigned. Foote is a long-term diplomat who has previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Zambia, among other positions.
Foote announced his resignation, effectively immediately, with a publicly distributed letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that candidly condemned “the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti” despite the ongoing danger posed by “terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs,” among other threats. The letter also stated that Foote’s recommendations “have been ignored and dismissed,” an accusation that the White House has disputed.
5. U.S. support for prime minister suspected of involvement in assassination
Among the complaints listed in Foote’s resignation letter is U.S. support for current Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who is serving as the de facto leader of the country. When Moise was assassinated, Henry was one of several officials who claimed leadership of the country, but only took office after the U.S. and other Western powers publicly threw their support behind him. There were reasons for the U.S. to weigh in on the power struggle; I recently argued that this was a necessary move, but that the U.S. should now take a step back and let Haitians sort out their own political future. Nevertheless, Foote represents the misgivings of many in the U.S. and Haiti that “this cycle of international political interventions in Haiti will have calamitous consequences” in Haiti and elsewhere.
Beyond the presumptuous of the U.S. picking a leader for Haiti, particular criticism has been expressed for the choice of Henry, a medical doctor with little political experience who had been appointed to the prime minister position but not yet installed when Moise was killed. Henry has been seen as upholding U.S. interests rather than Haitians; he has, for example, offered little protest against U.S. treatment of Haitian migrants to the U.S.
Domestically, many Haitians view him as a representative of the country’s elites rather than the needs of the population at large. And most controversially, Henry has been accused of potential involvement in the assassination of Moise, due to his contact with another politician who remains a suspect in masterminding the assassination. Moise has responded by firing his chief prosecutor for making the allegations. American support for Henry, therefore, risks creating a scandal should Henry become tied to the assassination or continue to fight with members of his own government over the issue.
The U.S. has a long, often negative history of interference in the political affairs of Haiti and mistreatment of Haitian migrants and immigrants to the U.S. Joe Biden promised a different approach to Haiti, appealing to the Haitian American community during his campaign and later appointing Haitian Americans to prominent roles within his administration.
Nevertheless, the current responses of the administration to the crises in Haiti look like more of the same U.S. policies that have contributed to the island nation’s woes for decades. The administration would be wise to reevaluate its approach to Haiti if it wants to live up to its own principles and the expectations of its supporters.