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Today, the makeshift migrant border camp in Del Rio, Texas, is virtually empty, cleared of thousands of Haitian refugees who came there seeking asylum in America. State troopers now line the border area to discourage others from gathering.
The horrifying images of the crisis—immigration agents on horseback using reins as whips on the helpless, women and children huddled in the heat, distraught Haitians deported back to the Haiti that they had left years ago—will not be so easily erased. And more Haitians and Central Americans are on their way north as I write.
President Biden denounced the treatment of the Haitians, admitting that “We know that those images painfully conjured up the worst elements of our nation’s ongoing battle against systemic racism.”Yet, the deportations will continue.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, reported that of the 30,000 Haitians that had gathered at the border, 12,000 were given a chance to make their case for asylum, 8,000 returned to Mexico, and some 2,000 were deported to Haiti. The deportations were carried out under the special order issued by Donald Trump, using the pandemic as an excuse to deport refugees seeking asylum.
The contrast of the treatment of Haitians with that of Afghans is stark. There is bipartisan support for resettling thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban in the U.S. In polls, both Republicans and Democrats support welcoming the Afghani migrants. At the same time, most Americans favor even stricter policies on our southern border, a reflection of Trump’s success in turning immigration into a racial symbol.
Yet, the kind of peril that Afghans face in their home country is paralleled by that faced by those arriving from Haiti or from Central America. Desperate, they leave their homes fleeing brutal gang violence, extortion, climate catastrophes and desperate poverty, all made worse by corrupt repressive governments.
Reprimand for the agents on horseback is not sufficient. The U.S. needs a deep reassessment of its immigration policies and its policies toward its neighbors to the south. Congressional hearings and bipartisan public commissions should probe the reality we face—and what a humane, forward-looking policy should include.
Any reassessment must start with the U.S. dramatically changing its foreign policy priorities. We spent over $3 trillion on the failed war in Afghanistan. We spend billions a year to keep troops in Europe 76 years after World War II, and in Korea nearly 70 years after the fighting stopped. We spend billions in a misbegotten effort to police the world, with troops engaged in anti-terror operations in an unimaginable 85 countries over the last three years alone.
At the same time, we have short-changed assistance to our neighbors, have limited capacity to aid them in times of calamity, and too often have supported dictators and corrupt elites that have preyed upon their own people.
Haiti is an extreme example of that. In 1791, Haiti, then known as Saint Dominigue, was a jewel in France’s colonial empire when its slaves revolted against wealthy planters, fighting for their independence. For this, Haitians paid a brutal price as France—with U.S. assistance—forced Haitians to pay billions in reparations for overturning the slave society. The U.S. took control over Haiti’s finances, invaded, and then ran the country for years, and has supported a series of corrupt dictators and corrupted elections over the past decades.
In the last year, popular revolts have continued against a corrupt and illegitimate government. In July, the unpopular president, Jovenel Moise, was assassinated, throwing the government into turmoil. Violence spread; food became scarce. In August, a massive earthquake hit, killing more than 2,000, injuring over 12,000, and destroying villages. That was followed by flash flooding caused by tropical storm Grace. The U.S. is returning Haitians forcibly to a country utterly unable to provide for them.
One thing we know. If nothing changes, the number seeking refuge will continue to grow. Extreme weather is already destroying more crops, flooding villages, leveling towns. Repressive governments and failed states leave families at risk.
The U.S. needs to make its asylum policy clear. It needs to define who it will allow to seek asylum and apply that standard without discrimination. It needs comprehensive immigration reform that will increase the number of legal immigrants. And it needs a good neighbor policy that will dramatically increase resources for multi-lateral economic aid and humanitarian relief.
We need to augment our own ability to help our neighbors in time of calamity and we need to invest in our neighbors to build their own capacity to react to what surely will be growing climate catastrophes. Haiti deserves debt relief and reparations from France and the United States, repaying the debt exacted by slave-owning societies for the Haitian revolt that freed the slaves.
Last week, my son Jonathan joined a delegation led by Rev. Al Sharpton to investigate the situation in Del Rio. They heard how the Haitians were lured to the U.S. border by ad campaigns suggesting they would be welcomed, but instead were preyed upon by gangs and thieves along the way. About two-thirds of the Haitian migrants were women and children.
Haitians are human too. In a time of extreme distress, they deserve a helping hand, not the lash of a rein. And for our own sake, we should be working with our neighbors to build prosperity, not building walls to protect ourselves from the misery around us.
The Congress should have hearings on Haitian and immigration policies and Haiti should be included in our budget.
Jesse Jackson is an African-American civil rights activist and Baptist minister. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 and served as shadow senator for the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1997. He was the founder of both entities that merged to form Rainbow/PUSH.