Migrant Haitian crisis reaches critical stage at Texas border

We read about Haiti a lot, but we don’t think about Haiti a lot. But now, the reality of a flow of Haitian migration that began 11 years ago has reached the nation’s doorstep.

In January 2010, the island nation of 11 million people less than 700 miles from Miami was hit by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake just outside of Port-au Prince that destroyed some 105,000 homes and damaged more than 208,000 others, affecting around 3 million people. About 200,000 people died.

In the ensuing years, large numbers of Haitians migrated to Brazil for construction jobs ahead of the 2016 Olympics. Then, as the political situation in Brazil worsened, they moved on to Chile.

In a very helpful August 2020 paper, the Migration Policy Institute’s Georges Fouron wrote that remittances from the 1.6 million Haitians living outside the country accounted for 37 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) — a share larger than every country in the world except Tonga.

Yet, tragedy rarely bypasses Haiti.

According to the New York Times, “Just since July, when President Jovenel Moïse was shot, [Haiti has] faced a devastating earthquake and flash floods, disasters that left over 2,000 dead and many more injured and displaced, adding to the toll that poverty, hunger and increasing violence already exact on the country.”

Add to that the political and economic instability of Latin and South America and it is no surprise that over the past 11 months more than 29,000 Haitians have arrived at the US-Mexico border, “including some in mixed-nationality families with children born in Brazil, Chile, or other South American nations.”

Which number does not include the tens of thousands of Haitians currently stranded in Tapachula, Mexico, where, according to the Los Angeles Times, “waves of Mexican national guard forces in riot gear, backed by immigration agents, block the roads heading north.” It remains to be seen if this situation is changed by the news that over the weekend “Haiti and Mexico agreed to establish a permanent dialogue to address the situation of irregular migration flows, including the transit through Mexico.”

By last Wednesday, drone footage of approximately 10,000 migrants, most of them Haitian, camped under a bridge between the Rio Grande and Del Rio, Texas, was rocketing across conservative media.

After viewing the scene, US Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said of the situation, “It is the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen,” and he laid blame at the feet of the Biden administration’s decision to “stop flying deportation flights back to Haiti.”
Texas’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on Fox News to call the situation an “invasion” and accuse Democrats of “trying to take over our country without firing a shot.”

Incidentally, a strong case can be made that former President Trump’s use of the term “invasion” was mimicked by the man accused of killing 20 people in El Paso in August 2019 when he wrote in his manifesto, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Faced with a menu of difficult choices, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last Saturday released a six-point plan to address the situation. The decision to move additional personnel and resources to the border and work with federal, state, and local partners to improve the conditions faced by the Haitian migrants on US soil is a critical step forward.

But, in the rush to organize removal flights, a few things must be kept in mind.

First of all, there are likely valid asylum claims among the thousands of people along the river. Without due process protections, Haitians may be returned to face persecution.

Remember that in May, the administration granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians in the US because “Haiti is currently experiencing serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.” Since TPS only protects those in the US at the time of the designation, recent arrivals remain subject to removal.

Furthermore, if the appeal to keep Title 42 in place for family units fails, the administration will be limited in how it can rely on the health rule for removals. Even as the administration turns to the expedited removal process, which also has due process shortcomings, the question remains: Can the system handle it?

Whether or not Haiti can handle the influx is another question. Jean Négot Bonheur Delva, the head of Haiti’s Office of National Migration, told the Miami Herald that “fourteen thousand people are expected to descend on us here. It is too much.”

The Biden administration also indicated it is working with third countries in the region that the Haitian migrants either resided in, or transited through, to return them there. While the statute allows for returns to third countries “pursuant to a bilateral or multilateral agreement,” it is far from clear that Haitians will be returned to a place where they will not be persecuted.

The humanitarian crisis in Del Rio is on top of the arrival of Afghans across the country, in addition to efforts to protect the undocumented via budget reconciliation, and parallel to a continuing flow of migrants from Central America. The left will protest the summary removal of Haitians. The right will call for further hardening of the border. And all of this as former Trump aides are laying plans to build opposition to the resettlement of Afghans in the United States. In the middle will be the vast swath of Americans wondering which side is correct.

Which brings me to a conversation I had last Sunday afternoon with T  XX, a volunteer in Del Rio, ahead of my trip there this week.

Which brings me to a conversation I had last Sunday afternoon with T  XX, a volunteer in Del Rio, ahead of my trip there this week.

“Hold on a minute,” T  XX said when she answered. “Don’t hang up, or I will get distracted before I can call back.”

In the background, I heard rustling. Speaking to someone else, she said “Okay, here’s the car seat, but I need it back.”

There was a pause. The other person said something.

“You’re right,” T XX said. “Hang onto it.”

Getting back to me, she said, “Just trying to help get this family to the hospital. We saw this coming 10 months ago.”
And, in a no nonsense, you’ve got two minutes till something else happens, T XX asked, “What do you need?”

Which conversation was a stark reminder that whether it is the Afghan crisis that played out over weeks, or the culmination of a decade of Haitian migration we are seeing now, ultimately, this is about people pinned against borders they are hoping to cross.

Ali Noorani is the president and CEO of National Immigration Forum and America is Better, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, and host of the podcast Only in America. He is a former resident of Dorchester, where he worked for the health center organization, DotWell.

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