Biden is only the latest president to shun Haitians in need

Scores of refugee men, rescued by the Coast Guard from international waters as they escaped Haiti, stood behind razor wire at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba in December 1991.
(Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press)
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On Friday, at the end of a week that began with widely published images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback herding Haitian refugees like cattle and ended with reports of thousands of these desperate people being summarily returned to Haiti, Wade Henderson had had enough.

“On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the undersigned organizations, we write to urge you to immediately pause the removal of Haitians to Haiti and uphold basic due process and human rights for Haitians seeking asylum at the U.S. border,” Henderson wrote to President Biden.

The mistreatment of Haitians seeking refuge on Biden’s watch follows “a long history of discriminatory treatment of Haitians who flee their country in search of a better life,” Henderson told me.

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He’s right; it is a history that I know all too well — and a story that seems to be repeating itself.

In December 1992, I boarded a 10-seat, U.S. military charter plane in Florida for a three-hour flight to the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For months I had been denied permission to visit the U.S. military outpost. As a journalist, I wanted to see how Haitians who fled their country in the wake of the violent coup that ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, were being treated by the government of Republican President George H.W. Bush.

That permission came only after I managed to reach by phone Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who cleared the way for me to visit the base. What I saw when I arrived there, I wrote at the time, was a scene “more reminiscent of a Nazi stalag” than what most Americans would expect of a U.S.-run refugee camp.

The Haitians were housed in military tents pitched atop the tarmac of an abandoned runway. Inside, the temperature pushed above 100 degrees. Outside, the tent city was surrounded by doubled rows of barbed wire and heavily armed U.S. soldiers.

The Bush administration called these Haitian refugees “migrants,” a term that sought to make more palatable its decision to return nearly all of them to an uncertain fate in Haiti.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Democrat Bill Clinton promised to treat Haiti’s refugees better. But for much of his first term, he didn’t. In fact, five days before he assumed the presidency, Clinton reneged on that promise. To the chagrin of many of his Black supporters, Clinton embraced his predecessor’s Haitian policy.

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But two years later pressure mounted on Clinton to change the way he treated Haitian refugees, which the Congressional Black Caucus labeled racist. “We are upset, we are indignant, and we are declaring war on a racist policy,” Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) said during a March 1994 news conference. The next month Lawrence Pezzullo, Clinton’s special envoy to Haiti, resigned.

Days later Clinton named Bill Gray, a retired congressman from Philadelphia and former chairman of the caucus, his special advisor for Haiti. Gray wasted no time saving Clinton from himself. In a whirlwind trip through the region that I covered, he got the leaders of several Caribbean nations to let the U.S. relocate Haitian refugees within their borders while their asylum applications were being processed. This gave the Clinton administration time to broker a deal that ended the coup, returned Aristide to power, and stanched the flow of Haitian refugees to the U.S.

But this proved to be a short-lived victory.

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When Aristide was chased from power again in 2004, this time with the acquiescence — and some say active involvement — of Clinton’s successor, Republican President George W. Bush, a new refugee crisis ensued. The new Bush administration put Haitians it believed to have credible asylum claims in indefinite detention and returned the rest to Haiti. The administration of Democrat Barack Obama resorted to a similar practice in 2016 when the flow of Haitian refugees into the U.S. surged at the Mexico-California border.

The following year, the administration of Republican Donald Trump announced that it would end in 2019 the temporary protected status that had allowed 59,000 Haitians to remain here temporarily, after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. The status had been extended several times before Trump took office.

Legal challenges held Trump’s termination order in limbo until after Biden moved into the Oval Office. In May, Biden granted temporary protected status to Haitians again. But it applies only to Haitians who “have been continuous residents in the United States since July 29, 2021.”

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Ultimately, it is not Biden’s use of this immigration provision, but his invoking of Title 42 of the federal Public Health Services Act that may well be the legacy of his treatment of the Haitians who try to enter the U.S. on his watch. The 1893 law gives federal officials the power to take extraordinary steps to limit transmission of an infectious disease during a pandemic. This is one of the tools the Biden administration is using to forcibly return Haitian refugees to their homeland.

“What the hell are we doing?” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) asked last week during a news conference about the Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian refugees. The answer shouldn’t surprise anyone who has paid attention to the way a long line of Republican and Democratic presidents have treated the American hemisphere’s most desperate people.

DeWayne Wickham is dean emeritus of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism & Communication, a former columnist for USA Today and a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists.

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