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A year after border crisis, Haitian asylum seekers face discriminatory treatment, report says

Miami Herald Article

Haitians crossing the southern border of the United States without proper documentation are being subjected to arbitrary detention and discriminatory and humiliating ill treatment that amounts to race-based torture, Amnesty International says in a new report marking the first anniversary of the migration crisis at the U.S. border in Del Rio, Texas.

A year ago this month, nearly 15,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, set up encampments underneath an international bridge connecting the southern Texas town of Del Rio and the Mexican city of Ciudad Acuña. The convergence of the migrants attracted world-wide attention, and raised questions about the Biden administration’s immigration policies as it responded by ramping up expulsions to Haiti.

Data by the United Nations International Organization for Migration show that since Sept. 19, 2021, more than 20,000 Haitian asylum seekers have been expelled to Haiti on more than 200 charter flights from the U.S. under the Trump-era public health law known as Title 42. 

On Monday, immigration advocates and human rights organizations gathering across from the White House in Lafayette Park to remember Del Rio demanded an end to Title 42.

“We cannot in good conscience continue the same system that was put in place by the previous government,” Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said in her remarks. “When running for president, Joe Biden said his goal was to restore the soul of America. What we saw under the bridge in September in Del Rio was not restoring the soul of America, it was condemning the soul of America.” 

Democratic Florida representatives Frederica Wilson and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick sent a letter to President Biden and Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas this week requesting a moratorium on deportations to Haiti, and an extension and re-designation of Temporary Protected Status, which allows migrants to live and work legally in the United States on a temporary basis. 

A study by the Migration Policy Institute shows that while thousands of Haitians have been returned to Haiti by the Biden administration, thousands have been allowed in. Advocates, however, contend that those stays haven’t been long enough to provide a chance to apply for asylum, and many people find themselves back in Haiti after just a few months in the U.S. 

Its findings, Amnesty International says, “point to the urgent need for an investigation into systematic anti-Black racism within the immigration system, including a review of its policies.”

Haitian migrants used a dam to cross to and from the United States from Mexico on Sept. 17, 2021, in Del Rio, Texas. Thousands of Haitian migrants assembled under and around a bridge in Del Rio presenting the Biden administration with a fresh and immediate challenge as it tried to manage large numbers of asylum-seekers who had been reaching U.S. soil. Eric Gay  AP

The report is based on interviews with 24 Haitian asylum seekers who were in U.S. immigration custody before being expelled to Haiti. Among what the Haitians reported: They had no access to lawyers or interpreters while in custody, and none were given credible-fear screenings to determine the risk they might face upon return to Haiti, which suggested they were being held and expelled under Title 42.

Despite this rationale for holding asylum seekers and quickly sending them back to their home country, none were screened for COVID-19 or offered a vaccine before they were flown to Haiti in shackles and handcuffs — restraints that are tantamount to race- and migrant-related torture under international human-rights law, Amnesty International said. 

“Haitians were often chained in front of their children, causing further humiliation, mental suffering — including for the children — and ill-treatment,” the report concluded.

In some cases pregnant detainees were held without any medical screenings. In others, children as young as 14 days old were separated from their parents “in explicit violation of international law that protects children’s best interests,” Amnesty International said.

The allegations raised in the report have also been reported by Haitian and immigration activists tracking flights to Haiti.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

“For many Haitians interviewed for this report, the treatment they experienced in U.S. detention facilities — which included a harsh combination of lack of access to food, healthcare, information, interpreters and lawyers — quickly reached the threshold of ill-treatment,” the report said. “On arriving in the USA, they had already lived through a range of human-rights violations, as well as anti-Black racism during their journey. This cumulation of harms meant they were particularly susceptible to further ill-treatment at the hands of the USA, particularly rooted in discrimination due to their race, nationality and migration status.”

The report, Amnesty says, is intentionally being published on the one-year anniversary of the migration crisis in Del Rio, when Border Patrol officers on horseback charged into crowds of Haitian asylum seekers. The images for many Blacks were reminiscent of slavery, while for Haitians in particular were a reminder of their unequal treatment under U.S. immigration law.

In July, U.S. Customs and Border Protection finally published a report on the horseback incident. Despite determining the “unnecessary use of force against migrants who were attempting to re-enter the United States with food,” CBP concluded that none of the Haitians were intentionally struck by Border Patrol agents with their reins, or otherwise.

Amnesty International, however, says that CBP did not interview any of the Haitians present, which significantly undermined the credibility of the investigation. One migrant, Mirard Joseph, who was photographed being chased and lashed at by a border agent while carrying food, was subsequently deported back to Haiti. He is suing the agency. 

In recalling the photo, the Haitian Bridge Alliance said Joseph was among the thousands of Haitian migrants who while under the bridge and in U.S. immigration custody were exposed to verbal threats, intimidation, medical neglect, extreme hunger and thirst, lack of any sleeping materials, and desert heat.

“The images and realities of the inhumane treatment of Black Haitian families including pregnant women and children transported us back to a time of the enslavement of Black people and how the United States is using Title 42 to destroy the very soul, hope and will of those seeking asylum protection,” Jozef said.

Said Amnesty: “These shameful events in Del Rio took place as global conversations around systemic racial discrimination, and especially anti-Black racism, continued in the wake of the unlawful killing and torture of George Floyd by police officials in May 2020.” 

Haitians have continued their attempt to cross illegally into the U.S. While there has been a slowdown at the southern border, thousands continue to try to come by sea, only to be turned around. Since Oct. 1, 2021, Coast Guard crews have interdicted 7,173 Haitian migrants, the largest Haitian seaborne refugee crisis in almost two decades.

The Amnesty report points out that using public health grounds to detain and expel Haitian asylum seekers is not unique to the COVID pandemic. In the 1990s U.S. authorities detained Haitian asylum seekers living with HIV in camps in Guantanamo Bay.

“By continuing to subject Haitians to removals without credible fear screenings under Title 42 — a public health order implemented by the Trump administration supposedly to prevent COVID-19 — the Biden administration has only reinforced harmful historical tendencies which have stereotyped Haitians as bearers of disease, standing to further stigmatize and discriminate Haitians based on their race and nationality,” the report said.

The authors say the research and testimonies build on previous Amnesty International reports and urgent actions dating back to at least the 1990s that have highlighted “U.S. government actions and policies, which were designed to deter and punish Haitians who attempt to seek safety in the USA through actions, including unlawful push-backs at sea, mass detention of migrants and asylum seekers, combined with torture and other ill-treatment, and no effective access to due process or asylum procedures.”