Corralling Haitian refugees on US soil

A man on a horse
A man on a horse (Photo credit: Rodnae Productions)

The saying that “perception is more dangerous than reality” was played out in ‘real time last weekend when news broke that US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents on horseback appeared to be using their horses as well as their lariats to stop Haitian migrants from entering the USA at the Rio Grande border this past week. Graphic photographs, which appeared courtesy of Al Jazeera, seemed to show an ugly side of America, as the mounted CBP agents attempted to deter the throng of Haitians from entering the United States after crossing the Rio Grande. Their efforts drew massive criticisms of the Biden Administration and in response, President Biden stated on Friday that the treatment of Haitian migrants this week was “beyond an embarrassment” and “dangerous.” He promised that there would be consequences following an investigation into how border patrol agents confronted the Haitian migrants, as footage showed that some appeared to swing their reins like whips.  According to President Biden, “those images send the wrong message around the world as it is simply not who we are.” Officials later suspended the use of horse patrols near the camp.

The current Haitian refugee crisis was the result of last month’s 7.2 magnitude earthquake which struck Haiti, killing 2,189 people, and leaving more than 12,000 injured and dozens missing. According to Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency, nearly 53,000 houses were destroyed, and more than 77,000 houses were damaged in the most-affected Haitian departments, or provinces, of Sud, Grand‘Anse and Nippes. The earthquake came a little more than a month after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, creating a power vacuum in which Haiti has no functioning legislature or head of state. Under the circumstances, Haitians have been struggling to come to terms with the devastation wrought by the earthquake.

In a nation that had not fully recovered from the devastating 2010 earthquake, and where many are hesitant to receive foreign aid following mismanaged development projects over the past decade, the population is relying on locally-based networks and organizations to meet basic needs. The general feeling though is that the international community has not exactly been brisk with providing aid to Haiti, a usual and customary practice among the members of the international community. The result has been a deepening humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean island forcing thousands to abandon the island they once called home, braving the Caribbean and Atlantic waters in any vessel that will accommodate them for a chance at a fresh start elsewhere.

The United States of America has had a long and troublesome relationship with Haiti dating back to the closing days of Negro Slavery. In fact, the territory was invaded by the USA in 1915 and occupied by the Americans for another 30 years. Given that history, one would have expected that the Americans would have been more willing to help in this time of crisis as throughout history, waves of would-be refugees — Irish in the 1800s, multiples of Europeans during the Great War of 1914-18, the Second World War, and more recently, Iraqis after the September 11 attacks have trekked into the United States with little pushback. The same though cannot be said for Mexicans and Central Americans, who for decades have encountered both hostile and welcome receptions upon setting foot in the United States.

But few groups have endured a less enthusiastic reception than Haitians, despite the pivotal role that the United States has often played in spurring people of the impoverished Caribbean nation to jump ship in the first place, say academic experts, activists, and Haitian American community members.

Under the circumstances, advocates say those arriving now deserve more consideration. According to Marleine Bastien, a longtime Haitian community activist and executive director of the Family Action Network Movement in Miami, racism and 70 years of failed US foreign policy are at the root of the country’s humanitarian crisis. Aspects of US foreign policies Bastien stated, “prioritizes dictators, autocrats and corrupt leaders, some of them singlehandedly picked by the US and ignoring the plight of the Haitian people. As long as we continue failed policies, we will see this kind of tragedy and crisis at the southern border as innocent men, women and children fleeing an earthquake-ravaged, politically unstable country in hopes of starting over.”

It is instructive that since the images surfaced, the US authorities have softened their approach towards the arriving Haitians. Most of the makeshift camps that had developed along the banks of the Rio Grande have been emptied. US Homeland Security personnel appear to have moved expeditiously to address the new crisis and to soften the public relations’ picture for the Biden administration. That notwithstanding, the crisis is far from over and for many, the perception of horsemen chasing and apparently whipping Black men, women, and child refugees of a multi-generational crisis, begs the question of “would this approach have been pursued were the refugees white?”

Richard Hugh Blackford is a Jamaican creative artist residing in the United States.

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