September 23 2019, 6:04 pm

The role of U.S. foreign policy within the immigration debate has been largely overlooked, with southern border politics, migrant detention and the frequent announcements of new immigration policies being discussed instead. While the reasons for migration vary greatly among groups — ranging from environmental disasters, family reunification, food and economic insecurity, among others — in many ways, these forces are grounded in the United States' rise to global dominance, particularly over the last century.

Protecting and advancing this dominance ultimately meant crushing competing political and economic systems that would undermine western capitalism under the cloak of spreading democracy. As such, it is no coincidence that this political project has played out in the same areas of the world people are fleeing today.

Thus, grappling with the impact of foreign policy and its relationship to immigration helps us better understand why people have been forced to uproot their lives in the first place.

For immigrants from the world’s two oldest Black republics, the correlation between immigration and foreign policy is salient. Recently, both Haitian and Liberian immigrants have been at the center of sudden termination of their respective immigration relief programs in the United States. However, the U.S. has been involved in these countries’ politics since their formation in the 19th century.

The idea that these countries’ current state of affairs exists outside this long legacy of foreign policy ultimately betrays history.


The Caribbean nation became the first Black republic when enslaved Africans brought France, the world’s most powerful empire at the time, to its knees during the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804. A source of unimaginable wealth, France forcibly sold their vast North American Louisiana Territory to the U.S., allowing the new nation to double in size. Despite its independence, the U.S., France and many European nations refused to acknowledge Haiti or engage in trade, and even forced the Haitian government to pay massive reparations to France in order to maintain its sovereignty. Over time, the young republic became heavily indebted to U.S. and French creditors.

The U.S. compounded Haiti’s economic troubles when U.S. financial institutions, such as Citibank, sought to expand into new financial markets in the Caribbean. The U.S. government backed this venture with military strength, quelling local resistance. In 1914, the U.S. invaded Haiti and controlled almost every aspect of public life for 20 years, including police, schools, public works and hospitals. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who later became the 32nd president of the U.S., even rewrote Haiti’s constitution, granting land-owning rights to foreigners. Many projects were carried out with brutal forced labor from the local population.This violent imperial project impacted trade, debt and infrastructure for many years. The U.S. also supported puppet governments friendly to U.S. interests well into the 20th century, including brutal dictatorships under the Duvalier family from 1957 to 1986. Even as recent as 2010, there were reports of U.S. interference in Haiti’s elections.

Stateside, there are over 670,000 Haitian immigrants living in places like Florida and New York. After the devastating 2010 earthquake, which severely impacted the country’s existing infrastructure, a new wave of migrants sought refuge in the U.S. However, in November 2017, the Trump administration attempted to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haiti, a long-standing immigration relief program. The Department of Homeland Security cited that conditions on the ground had improved, despite the State Department’s travel warning. Protections for this group are currently held in place by the ongoing Ramos v. Nielsen lawsuit for Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Sudan.


The West African nation also has an entangled history with the United States. Preceding the “Scramble for Africa” era, Liberia was the United States’ only colony on the continent. As slavery in the States expanded, slaveholders, politicians and even some Black leaders hoped to deal with the fate of the growing population of free Black people. As such, almost 20,000 Black people from the U.S. (and the Caribbean) were relocated to Liberia. In 1847, Liberia gained its independence, as the U.S., invested in territorial expansion, waged war with Mexico. Lacking an industrial economy of its own, the U.S. and Europe offered the new nation loans, creating an enduring relationship of economic dependency.

U.S. interest in Liberia continued well after independence. Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey bought land in Liberia as part of his “Africa for the Africans” campaign, then Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, helped upend this deal and replaced it with the Firestone rubber company, in service to the growing automobile industry. Exploiting the local population, the tire company utilized slave labor and child labor, even as recently as 2005.

After decades of bending to U.S. interests as a hub in the fight against communism, Liberia came under pressure again in the 1970s when Liberian President William Tolbert promoted the country’s economic independence, established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, severed ties with Israel and advocated for Palestinian rights. In 1980, rebel leader Samuel K. Doe and his army executed Tolbert in a coup d’état. Doe received the full support of the U.S. government as president of Liberia. The country descended into a series of brutal civil wars from 1989 to 2003.

More than 50,000 Liberians left the country. The U.S. provided immigration relief in the form of TPS and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). However, in March 2018, the Trump administration terminated DED for an estimated 4,000 Liberians who have lived in the U.S. for decades and have been unable to adjust to a permanent status. Under pressure, the White House extended the termination for 12 months in March 2019. Today, Liberians on DED are among many groups fighting for permanent residency.

While the scope of this issue ranges well beyond these two nations, the migration crisis we see today is a deeply rooted product of foreign policy. This is exemplified when we consider former U.S. support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia used in Yemen’s civil war, Central American migration, the Banana wars or tech companies in the Congo. In this context, immigration relief is not a gift, it is about justice.