The U.S. – Haiti Border: How the United States Blocks Haitians Wherever They Go

Photograph Source: Marcello Casal Jr/ABr – CC BY 3.0 br

Five days after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in Haiti, the United States sent a jumbo jet flying over the countryside. As people stood amid the wreckage, the prerecorded, disembodied voice of Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, spoke from the sky: “Listen, don’t rush on boats to leave the country. If you do that, we’ll all have even worse problems. Because I’ll be honest with you: if you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”

The U.S.-Haiti border had arrived. It came with 16 Coast Guard cutters roaming Haitian shores and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security opening up detention beds run by the private prison company GeoGroup in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. U.S. officials call this elastic apparatus in Caribbean waters, which can expand at a moment’s notice, the “third border.” Here, there is an enforcement web of many agencies—including the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, CBP Air and Marine, ICE, and even U.S. Southern Command—that emanates from the U.S. in Puerto Rico and South Florida. All these agencies participate in joint annual exercises, known as Integrated Advance, that are meant to deal with “maritime mass migration in the Caribbean.” Integrated Advance is part of Operation Vigilant Sentry, the DHS migration interdiction plan in the Caribbean. In 2015, officials even disguisedthemselves as migrants heading north on boats as part of the exercise and set up a command and control center. “A migrant operation is one of our most likely missions at Army South, so we have to be prepared,” said Major General Joseph P. DiSalvo, Army South’s commander.

These DHS agencies also collaborate with local police units, such as Puerto Rico’s FURA, or help create and train them, like the Dominican Republic’s CESFRONT, the Dominican border guard. All these different factions of border enforcement wrap around Haiti like a boa constrictor. For example, when a 185-foot Haitian freighter carrying 80 Haitians crashed into Mona Island, a U.S. territory, the passengers jumped off the sinking ship and swam ashore, but since they lacked authorization to be in the United States, park rangers arrested them and transferred them to the U.S. Border Patrol in Puerto Rico. Within a week, they were back to Haiti, all thanks to a stroke of bad luck. A park ranger who had arrested the Haitians told me this story in 2012, but it could just as easily have happened in 2021.

The west coast of Puerto Rico has much in common with the heavily patrolled southern border of the United States. There, green-striped Border Patrol vehicles cruise up and down the coastal roads and a tall surveillance tower with blinking red lights stares out to sea, where Dominican and Haitian migrants navigate the choppy waters of the Mona Passage. Together with the Coast Guard, CBP fast boats patrol the waters and Guardian drones surveil from above.

Although people didn’t leave Haiti immediately after the earthquake, thousands eventually headed south instead of north, especially to Brazil, as work opened around the World Cup and Olympic Games. Many then moved on to Chile, and some have made the hemispheric trek to the U.S. border, as we saw earlier this month in Del Rio, Texas, with its politicized “border crisis.” At work here is a border deterrence strategy, like the one in effect on the U.S.-Mexico land border, according to geographer Jenna Loyd, coauthor of Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention in the United States, with geographer Alison Mountz. In a way, the water patrols were like fortified areas on the U.S.-Mexico border, such as those near San Diego, Nogales, El Paso, and Brownsville. “The deterrent efforts mean that people move around them,” Loyd said. “And that is what is happening. People are finding another way.”

In other words, to understand why Haitians are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border now, the Caribbean—the invisible third border—has to first be acknowledged. The same people who camped under the bridge in Del Rio, Texas, might have heard the jumbo jet’s warning a decade ago as it flew over the devastation of Port-au-Prince. Or maybe they heard the more recent warnings from U.S. officials, such as U.S. Embassy’s tweets in March, issued in Haitian Creole, one of which stated, “I can say quite clearly, do not come over.” (Very similar to what Vice President Kamala Harris would say to Guatemalans in June: “Do not come.”) As if following the same marching orders, the Coast Guard has intercepted at least 1,000 Haitians so far in 2021, even after another earthquake devastated parts of a country where 59 percent live on less than $2 a day. “What is happening on the border is nothing new,” said Ninaj Raoul, cofounder of the immigration rights group Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, in a conversation with the Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat, who wrote a short essay about the history of the U.S. immigration abuses toward Haitians. Indeed, Raoul had seen this for herself. She worked as an interpreter in the Guantánamo detention centers in the 1990s.

The Offshore Detention Archipelago

The U.S. southern border in the Caribbean has existed for decades, and its central deterrence strategy was a precursor of the 1994 “prevention through deterrence” doctrine on the U.S.-Mexico border. In Boats, Borders, and Bases, Loyd and Mountz point to Operation Safe Haven, which the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations created as a “transnational deterrence infrastructure” in the Caribbean. These administrations made agreements with countries ranging from Panama to Dominica to create an “offshore detention archipelago,” or a system of detention camps that immigration attorney Harold Koh said “rank among the most startling, yet invisible, features of United States foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.” Koh described tent cities that held “thousands of men, women, and children, surrounded by rolls of razor-barbed wire, amid the sweltering heat of the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the former Panama Canal zone.” By 1996 the prison in Guantánamo peaked at about 48,000 people, after thousands of people fled Haiti in the aftermath of the 1991 coup that ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As Danticat points out in her piece, the coup was carried out by the Haitian military, some of whom were trained in the United States and on the CIA payroll.

During the 1990s the United States also rounded up HIV-positive Haitians, put them in detention camps, and “blockaded them from being able to exercise their asylum rights,” Loyd told me. She connected this history to the DHS Covid-era Title 42 policy of rapidly expelling people. While the use of disease has been an age-old bias in U.S. border policy, and entrenched in anti-immigrant rhetoric, Haitians have been pegged particularly “as disease carriers.” The connection rings true after the mass deportation of nearly 4,000 Haitians from Del Rio with 37 expulsion flights from September 19 to 27. Thanks to Title 42, they were barred from petitioning for asylum.

On top of this, on September 22, the United States advertised for a private contractor to operate a detention facility run by ICE on Guantánamo Bay and required that some of the guards speak Haitian Creole. When asked if this prison would hold Haitians expelled from Del Rio, White House press secretary Jen Psaki answered, “There’s never been a plan to do that. I think there was confusion related to the Migrant Operations Center, which has been used for decades to process migrants interdicted at sea for third-country resettlement.” This was “routine” and “unrelated to the southern border.” But this too was the southern border. And the very fact that it was “routine” shows even more clearly that this is business as usual on the U.S.-Haiti border.

This border has many faces. It is constantly brutalizing and humiliating people, yet it so often remains invisible in U.S. national discourse. I saw one of the border’s faces up close in 2012 on a reporting trip to Dajabón, a town of 26,000 people on the Dominican land border with Haiti along the Massacre River. All day I had been interviewing the commander of the U.S.-trained and resourced border patrol named CESFRONT (loosely the Specialized Border Security Corps) and wandering along the border where the guards sat with assault rifles, staring into Haiti behind four-by-eight-foot crowd-control barriers placed crookedly along the riverbank, forming a makeshift border wall. This was two years after the earthquake. The nascent border guard CESFRONT was barely past its toddler stage, having been created in 2007 after a U.S. assessment team recommended that the Dominican Republic form its own border patrol.

A sudden downpour forced me to sit next to the commander, who was dressed in the desert camo you might see in the Middle East, in front of the six soaked, forlorn-looking Haitian men. They had just been arrested. The commander pointed at the men and said, “Ilegales,” leaving his finger hovering in the air like a micro drone. I slunk back a little, and one of the men looked at the commander with blazing eyes. “We came because of hunger,” he said in Spanish. The commander seemed to relish this chance for a debate. He had friends in Haiti, he said, and they had resources, they were not hungry. But the young man stared at him with unflinching, unintimidated eyes. In them there seemed to be the burden of centuries of foreign powers, especially the United States, exploiting this country with economic straitjacketing (see Miami riceas one example, or foreign-imposed austerity measures as another) and then suffocating it with a violent border. But this is a place where a late 18th-century rebellion ousted slavery, making Haiti the only country ever to do so, along with the French colonizers. The Haitian man’s eyes smoldered as he went back and forth with the border guard commander for several minutes. “You don’t understand the hunger,” he said again. But perhaps he was really saying, “You are not going to stop us.”

This story originally appeared in Border Chronicle.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.