On March 28, 101 Haitians landed on a South Florida beach after a grueling 22-day voyage which claimed the life of one of their fellow travelers. But unlike Cuban émigrés who make it to U.S. soil (who are generally allowed to stay in the country and to apply for green cards after a year), these destitute Haitians have been detained by immigration officials for “expedited removal.”
This stark contrast in treatment between Haitian and Cuban refugees is one of Washington’s more glaring immigration policy double standards. As Florida author Carl Hiaasen recently wrote, “Illogical, unfair and racist in practice, it’s also been a boon to people-smugglers with fast boats, and to other profiteers.”
The U.S. has mostly viewed Haiti as a problem since the Caribbean nation won its independence and became the first black republic. The defeat that Haitians handed French colonists in 1803 presented an example that slaveowners to the north did not want to see inspire sons and daughters of Africa in the U.S.
U.S. alliances with sweatshop owners and other big businessmen were critical to the February 29, 2004 U.S.-backed coup which ousted the democratically-elected Haitian government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That military takeover was the culmination of a destabilization campaign bankrolled by the Bush Administration which involved political attacks on Aristide and his Lavalas Party (by far the largest political formation in Haiti) via Haitian and U.S. media, an aid embargo, and funding for anti-Lavalas groups. In its work to realize a better life for the poorest through increased social spending, doubling of the minimum wage and other progressive programs, the Lavalas government, rooted in the radical traditions of liberation theology, stood at odds to the pro-business agenda of the dominant powers in Washington.
In a March 2004 congressional hearing on aid to Haiti, Rep. Eliot Engel, head of the Western Hemispere subcommittee of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, said “I cannot think of a country or subject more deserving of Congress’ full and sustained attention than our neighbor, Haiti.” But as with U.S. “attention” to Iraq, it is hard to see how Haiti would be worse off if it had not been a focus of U.S. foreign policy. As in the buildup to the Iraq campaign, honorable members of congress defended Haiti’s sovereignty and opposed the Bush regime’s campaign to destabilize the Aristide government. But those progressive representatives, mostly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, were a minority and could not turn the tide.
The early 2004 operation against Haitian popular democracy involved Washington-funded, heavily armed paramilitary thugs crossing the border from the Dominican Republic (after receiving training from U.S. special forces troops sent to help the “contra” effort) and attacking civilians and Haitian police loyal to President Aristide. As during the previous anti-Aristide coup in 1991 (also carried out by U.S.-trained forces), mass killings and brutal torture of Lavalas supporters led to a mass exodus from the country. In the midst of that crisis, a representative of UNHCR, the UN agency on refugees, recommended “a suspension on any forced returns to Haiti, including those who have been rejected for asylum or picked up at sea.” But the Bush Administration continued to send all refugees back to the killing fields.
In August 2006, British medical journal The Lancet published a mortality study that concluded 8,000 people were killed in the first 21 months of the coup. In almost half of the deaths studied, the perpetrators were identified as security agents of the coup government, former soldiers or armed anti-Lavalas groups. No murders were attributed to Lavalas members. There was nary a peep of concern from the Bush Administration about this mass slaughter carried out under the illegal “interim” regime.
In spite of having sponsored forces behind the carnage in Haiti, the Bush administration continues with its harsh immigration regime for Haitians.
Conversely, Washington’s “open door” immigration policy for Cubans creates a propaganda vehicle for claims that the Cuban government is brutally repressing dissidents. In fact the ideologically driven U.S. trade embargo on Cuba has been the primary reason for an extremely desperate economic situation in which many Cubans see no choice but to come to the U.S.
Not even the most rabid anti-Castro Republican would claim that paramilitary killers are attacking civilians in Havana. Yet in Haiti death squads continue to crush nonviolent activists with impunity. Even though Rene Preval, a progressive associated with Lavalas, was elected President last year with the support of Haiti’s poor majority, rightists dominate most government ministries and there are few effective constraints on the brutal, predominately pro-coup Haitian police.
Jan Ting, an assistant commissioner for refugees, asylum and parole at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the first Bush Administration, recently admitted that U.S. policies single out Haitians for “undeniably harsher treatment.”
As the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (www.ijdh.org), points out in a recent action alert, the U.S. Congress now has a chance to undo that wrong. Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings and 16 cosponsors have introduced the Haitian Protection Act of 2007, H.R.522.IH, in the U.S. House of Representatives, which would grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to an estimated 20,000 Haitians facing deportation from the United States.
TPS is granted by the Executive Branch to provide relief to nationals of countries suffering natural disasters or political violence. The status suspends deportations of people who have overstayed their visas or entered illegally, for renewable 12-18 month periods. TPS provides important relief to such visitors, their families and their governments, at very little cost to U.S. taxpayers. It would allow Haitians in desperate straits to keep working to support themselves, and to keep sending money back to their families. It would thus reduce pressure on scarce jobs and government services in Haiti.
As the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti points out, “Haiti is more than qualified for TPS.” In addition to the political violence of recent years, the half-island nation is by any measure the poorest country in the Americas, largely because of resource extraction and labor exploitation at the hands of “the international community.” Haiti is also extremely vulnerable to more natural disasters: Tropical Storm Jeanne killed over 2,000 people in 2004. Nonetheless, Haitians have never received TPS. By contrast, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, all more prosperous and stable than Haiti, received TPS following natural disasters since 1999. The presidents of all three countries reported that TPS was critical to their recovery by keeping remittances immigrants send back home flowing.
According Haitians such treatment is the least that Washington can do.
BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer who has visited Haiti four times since the February 29, 2004 coup which forced out the democratically-elected Aristide government. He can be reached at email@example.com