The call for global unity while U.S. border agents on horseback were charging at Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas was totally incongruous. Biden’s measured address urging the world to make the use of force “our tool of last resort, not our first” was belied by the searing images of border agents literally trampling, to paraphrase the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, on the tired, poor, huddled mass of Haitian refugees yearning to breathe free after suffering the effects of natural disasters (tropical storms hurricanes, earthquakes) induced by accelerating climate change, weakened by the resultant food insecurity, and fleeing a nation torn apart by violence and political strife.
Lifting people up with words while herding out the “undesirables”
President Biden said, "We're opening a new era of ... using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world." Meanwhile, desperate Haitians, many accompanied by children, sleeping in squalid conditions under a border bridge were being chased by patrolmen on horseback trying to herd them for deportation.
President Biden announced the United States would step up its commitment to address climate change, increasing America’s assistance from $5.7 billion to about $11.4 billion a year. But whilehe pledged “relentless diplomacy”, he did not back down from preparations to nearly double the number of Haitians, potentially 1,000 per day, being deported to Haiti from Texas using Title 42, an emergency provision of the U.S. public health code to sidestep usual immigration proceedings, without an opportunity to request asylum proceedings.
Biden recognized that "Extreme weather events that we've seen in every part of the world -- and you all know it and feel it -- represent what the secretary-general has rightly called code red for humanity." Yet Haitian refugees are being treated as if they are the wretched refuse of the Caribbean shores.
The truth of the matter is that they caught in the intersection of environmental degradation, climate change and political disintegration that lead to forced migration. Yet they are being hunted down on horseback and lassoed into planes that dump them in a shattered country that many left years ago, after the 2010 shattering earthquake. Many Haitians who have lived for years in South America working at low-wage jobs today are facing a worsening pandemic and, like all refugees, are hoping to have a better life in America, the land of the free, the land of the brave.
Biden said “we have to support the countries and people that will be hit hardest and that have the fewest resources to help them adapt”. But his administration’s comprehensive strategy to address the increase in migrant encounters in the Del Rio sector of South Texas, announced by the Department of Homeland Security on September 18, 2021, is basically a humanitarian disaster in the making. The Haitian state is in the throes of a deteriorating political crisis, ongoing violent crime and a staggering increase of human rights abuses and is not able to receive the hundreds of deportees dumped from American planes on its shores.
Indeed, rather than support for those hit hardest by climate change, political upheaval and poverty, Biden’s seemingly hollow words remind us of a decades-long history of discriminatory immigration policies that have often targeted black immigrants and Haitians in particular for illegal and discriminatory turnbacks, expulsions, detention, and other mistreatment.·
- In the 19th century, driven by slavery and racism, the United States dismissed the very existence of Haiti, despite the success of the slave colony gaining freedom against all odds in its revolution for independence from France in 1804. Although the Civil War paved the recognition of Haiti as a nation, the United States routinely tried to do everything from annexing Haiti to seizing parts of its territory to dictating its governance because, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black”.
- In the 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson sent U.S. Marines to Haiti because Haitians had an “inherent tendency to revert to savagery”. The U.S. occupied Haiti, “seized control of the Haitian treasury, censored the Haitian press, conscripted Haitian peasants for unpaid labor and waged war on Haitian patriots who took up arms against the occupation.”
- During the Cold War, from the 1950s through the 1980s, the United States gave millions of dollars in support of the brutal dictatorships of the Duvalier father and son team. The Haitians who tried to escape and make it to the U.S. were routinely denied asylum, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention associated Haitians with AIDS.
- After 100 years in which Haiti was punished, abused, and pushed aside from the global economy and political community, another 100 years followed in which Haiti has been occupied, controlled, manipulated, and exploited. Extreme neglect, overt imperialism, and the unending weight of external debt have caused Haiti's current predicament, compounded by the devastating effects of natural disasters.
Yet now, in the 21st century, after Trump called Haiti a “shithole” country, Biden is treating Haiti’s citizens desperate for a bit of simple human dignity like bête-noires, all while tacitly backing the interim prime minister, Ariel Henry, who is suspected of being linked to the President’s assassination.
Words must lead to walking the talk
Biden needs to publicly champion a more humane approach to Haiti and Haitians. Biden said that it is "our duty as leaders" to answer the call for dignity from the "chorus of voices across languages and continents”, not to silence it. How can you do that when those voices are being trampled under the hooves of horses?
If “The United States is committed to using our resources and our international platform to support these voices, listen to them, partner with them to find ways to respond that advance human dignity around the world”, then it’s clear a more humane approach is needed. It’s not just about humanitarian assistance. It’s about taking responsibility for the words pronounced in a speech before the world.
Migrants are not a foreign problem dumped at America’s doorstep. And Haitians are not the black plague. They are economic, climate and political refugees that deserve humane treatment, “on the basis of need, and the direness of the situation they will face if returned, not according to factors like nationality, wealth, education, or ability, which is how our U.S. system presently operates.”
Haitians are not criminals, either. They are an opportunity to reverse a needlessly tragic history, driven by self-interest and the politics of racism. The Biden administration has the opportunity to uplift the desperate courage of hundreds of Haitians knocking at America’s door.
As the Administration deals with the crisis, it can make effective Biden’s words about “encounteringa new era — an era of new technologies and possibilities that have the potential to release and reshape every aspect of human existence. And it's up to all of us to determine whether these technologies are a force to empower people...”
Here's an idea. Channel the average $12,500 that it costs to arrest, detain and deport an individual, dedicate part of the $17.7 billion (FY 2021) that it costs the U.S. for immigrationenforcement and border security and earmark a part of the $40.8 billion 2021 budget requests for the Department of State and USAID to create and implement a human capital development program in partnership with Mexico, who is also challenged by the influx of migrants at the U.S. border.
The objective of a Migrant Human Capital Program would be to create a joint human capital development center to boost migrant education and skills that are needed in their countries of origin. The program would equally aim to train much needed blue-collar workers to address the growing and widespread shortage of workers in the U.S. in critical sectors like retail, hotel and restaurant, personalcare and home health aide, sanitation and cleaning, construction, electricians, and maintenance and repair, among others. It would be a win-win-win approach to working together to lift people up, solve economic problems and advance human freedom and dignity without having to resort to force.
Biden’s building-back-worse immigration policy
Biden’s immigration tightrope and the increasing outcries against and angry backlash to the treatment of Haitian like slaves is, indeed, not only, to quote Biden, a "shared grief", but also“a poignant reminder that our collective future will hinge on our ability to recognize our common humanity and to act together.”
Migration is part of our shared DNA. Ever since the earliest humans began to migrate from Africa, humans have been on the move. Whether voluntary or forced, migration has shaped our world. "Even today, 3% of the world’s population, or at least 258 million people, live outside of their country of origin."
Border patrolmen, for sure, have a herculean task in the face of the economics and politics that spur forced migration to the U.S. border with Mexico. But swinging the horse’s reins, shouting obscenities and grabbing at people fleeing in terror defies common decency and what border patrolmen, as agents of the law, should represent.
Along with the administration’s building-back-worse immigration policy that carries racist undertones, the lamentable situation at the Texas border belies the Biden administration’s blueprint for a fair, orderly, and humane immigration system. Lassoing immigrants is not the best way to enforce immigration laws in a way that is fair and just.
Whatever progress may have been made since the Biden-Harris Administration launched a broad, whole of government effort to reform the U.S. immigration system in January 2021, it has been trampled under hooves at Del Rio, Texas. What’s happening is certainly not transformative nor rational and does not exemplify a more humane vision for a 21st century immigration system.
Start thinking outside the box
America can’t enforce its way out of the immigration problem. But it can turn the problem into an opportunity by summoning the will and resolve to seize it.
If the Biden administration truly wants to “help lead the world toward a more peaceful, prosperous future for all people” while affirming and upholding the human dignity and human rights under the common cause of nations, it will need to start thinking outside the box.
If, as Biden said, “the United States intends to make a profound investment in research and innovation, working with countries at all stages of economic development to develop new tools and technologies to help us tackle the challenges of this second quarter of the 21st century and beyond” then building human capital is the first step in giving “everyone a fair shot to succeed." It is also the most humane and uplifting way to "protect their God-given rights”, including the economic value of their experience, knowledge and skills.
Success in building and developing a nation’s human capital is the cornerstone for everyone’s success. So instead of hoofing it to the border while stampeding the dignity of migrants from other, less privileged nations, let’s work together to champion the potential of those who have the courage to pursue their dreams of freedom, equality, and opportunity against all odds.
Let’s dedicate the resources necessary to boost them not boot them. The future belongs to those who embrace human dignity, not trample it.