Haitian migrants gather outside a humanitarian project in Ciudad Juárez, MX
On September 19, 2021, pictures from Del Rio, Texas went viral showing US Customs and Border Protection agents mounted on horseback and appearing to use whips to stop a group of Haitian migrants from crossing into the United States. At the time, many observers drew parallels between those photos and the slave patrols of the antebellum South. The incident was a painful reminder of how the legacy of slavery and the scourge of systemic racism continue to undergrid policing as well as immigration policy.
For many, it was also the first time that they were confronted with the reality that Haitian migrants are coming to the US/MX border. The common perception is that it’s predominantly Central American migrants, but this perception does not match the reality on-the-ground. In fact, Haitian migrants have been coming to the US/MX border as early as 2016 and this has only increased since, especially since the second half of 2020.
Why are Haitians migrating in the first place?
People from Haiti who are reaching the US/MX border have been migrating for over a decade. Haitians have been migrating for many reasons, including extreme poverty, violence, natural disasters, and political unrest. The first major influx of people leaving Haiti occurred soon after a massive earthquake hit the country in 2010. The catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake caused more than 217,000 deaths, left more than 1.5 million homeless, and caused long-term impacts on the island nation’s already weak economy.
Since then, other natural disasters and political events, such as Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and the recent assessination of Prime Minister Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, have continued to destabilize the country and displace many people.
From 2010 to 2016, Haitians began migrating to Latin American countries, predominantly Chile and Brazil, but also French Guiana, and Argentina. Chile and Brazil offered work permits and protections allowing Haitian migrants to settle in those countries. Brazil, for example, initially offered humanitarian visas and construction jobs in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Chile, one of the most economically and politically stable countries of the region at the time, also welcomed Haitian migrants without a visa until 2018.
However, soon after the election of center-right President Sebastian Pinera in 2017, Chile began to implement more strict immigration laws. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Chile began requiring visas for Haitians in 2018 … [but] about 69 percent of all Haitian visa requests were denied over the first two years. For those Haitians who did secure a tourist visa, Chile began to prevent most from acquiring a work permit if they received a job offer.”
Because of these and similar policy changes, many Hatian migrants no longer had legal protection nor the ability to work to sustain their families. In addition to these challenges, Haitian migrants also faced harassment and discrimination because of the color of their skin and for cultural differences like speaking French and Creole instead of Spanish.
Joseph, a 31 year-old migrant from Haiti who receives welcome and support from the Columban migrant ministry in Ciudad Juárez, MX (across the border from El Paso, TX), shared with us some of his experience with racism and discrimination from his time in Argentina. He told us how people would scream slurs at him when he would walk in public spaces, and that one time people refused to let him sit on an empty seat when he boarded a public bus. The other passengers were so aggressive that he decided to get off instead of enduring further harassment.
Why are Haitians now migrating to the US/MX border?
Changes over the last few years in South America have made it increasingly difficult for Haitian migrants to build a better life for themselves and their families. In addition to changes in Chile, in Brazil, the economy shrank after the 2016 Olympic Games and in 2019, Jair Bolsonaro was elected President and began implementing more restrictive immigration policies. But when the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, the many travel restrictions put in place, plus the fear of contracting the virus, prevented them from leaving.
But as the world began opening back up in the second half of 2020 and first half of 2021, more migrants decided to risk the dangerous journey north with the hope that they could receive asylum in Mexico or the United States. Many Haitians already have family in the United States since the US is home to the largest Haitian diaspora in the world. Also, in previous years, Haitians were able to come into the country under the Temporary Protections Status (TPS) program.
However, like other migrant communities before them, once Haitian migrants began arriving at the US/MX border, they were denied their right to request asylum and forced to wait in Mexico in dangerous conditions.
Hatian and other migrants are being forced to remain in Mexico under Title 42 and the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols. These policies continue to endanger the lives of many migrants by making them wait in a country where they face a number of challenges and dangers. Because most migrants lack a robust network of support, they’re often targeted by criminal organizations like traffickers and extortionists. Since the implementation of Title 42 in 2020, Human Rights First reports that nearly 10,000 migrants have been victims of kidnappings, torture, rape and other violent crimes.
Haitian migrants in Mexico are also at risk because they do not have access to basic services like healthy food or medical care. Humanitarian organizations and faith communities, like the Missionary Society of St. Columban, do provide these and other necessities. For example, Columbans in Ciudad Juárez run a shelter network, which offers safe spaces to protect families with young children. We also support initiatives like our “Cathedral Project,” which welcomes migrants who live outside of shelters and who need support in several ways: for example, with humanitarian aid, food, clothes, milk, diapers, legal advice, payment of rent, payment of medical consultation and medicines, and job searches.
However, the scale of the community’s needs is greater than NGOs are able to meet. Governments must also add their support. And now, with Title 42 and MPP being litigated through the courts, these families are effectively stranded in Mexico until a decision is reached.
The Sin of Racism
As with migrant communities before them, the immigration policies of the US government are denying Haitian migrants their fundamental right to request asylum and are forcing them to “remain in Mexico” in life-threatening conditions. But, in addition to these injustices, Haitians are also experiencing an added layer of discrimination, resulting in less access to services and hostility from local governments and communities.
The Missionary Society of St. Columban is witnessing these injustices as it accompanies the Haitian community in Ciudad Juarez, but the impact of racism has been documented along the community’s decade-long journey through the Americas.
In Brazil, for example, the Migration Policy Institute observed that, “many Haitians worked longer hours and earned lower wages than Brazilians, and the economic downturn exacerbated their challenges.”
In Chile, for example, The Los Angeles Times reported that “a 2019 government survey found that almost half of Haitian respondents in Chile said they had experienced discrimination because of their race or inability to speak Spanish. Several high-profile incidents — including the fatal police shooting in August of a Haitian man in the central Chilean city of La Ligua — have sparked allegations of racism.”
Along the US/MX border, this pattern has continued. We can see it present in the rate at which Haitian asylum seekers are granted asylum and the rate at which they are deported.
In September 2021 (the same month as the incident at Del Rio, TX), the AP reported the following information regarding Haitian asylum request:
Between 2018 and 2021, only 4.62% of Haitian asylum seekers were granted asylum by the U.S. — the lowest rate among 84 groups for whom data is available. Asylum seekers from the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, have a similarly low rate of 5.11%.
By comparison, four of the five top U.S. asylum applicants are from Latin American countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. Their acceptance rates range from 6.21% to 14.12%.
In June 2022, the New York Times reported the following information regarding the deportation of Haitian migrants:
In September, about 15,000 migrants, many of them Haitian, crossed the border into Del Rio, Texas, over the course of a few days. That month, the United States sent a record 58 expulsion flights to Haiti, according to data collected by the International Organization for Migration, which tracks the flights.
The number of flights per month decreased after that but rose again in January, when there were 36. There were a total of 39 flights from February to April, and the number shot up again in May, with many families and children younger than 3 aboard the 36 flights that month.
From May 19 to 26, U.S. border officials encountered 1,868 Haitians who had crossed the southwestern border, according to internal government data. During that period, there were 21 expulsion flights to Haiti. In comparison, over the same period, they encountered 5,264 Guatemalans and 4,453 Hondurans, and the United States sent seven expulsion flights to each country.
All these observations demonstrate that US immigration policy is producing racist outcomes, whether or not the government officials have a racist intent. The tragic impact it has on people’s lives remains the same.
The Voice of Faith
Central to our faith is the belief that every person is created in the image of God regardless of their race or national origin. If we take our faith seriously, this should challenge our assumptions about ourselves and those we believe to be different from us.
In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis makes it clear that racism is “a readiness to discard others … [and that] instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think” (#20).
The experience of Haitian migrants in Latin America and at the US/MX border should open us up to how the legacy of colonialism and the reality of systemic racism are still present in our world day. They are still driving forces of displacement in the Americas and are influencing our country’s immigration policies.
Confronting this reality is painful, but it is also necessary because it is only by encountering others and listening deeply to their experiences that we can truly know God. As Pope Francis teaches us in Fratelli Tutti:
Human beings are so made that they cannot live, develop and find fulfillment except “in the sincere gift of self to others.” Nor can they fully know themselves apart from an encounter with other persons: “I communicate effectively with myself only insofar as I communicate with others.” No one can experience the true beauty of life without relating to others, without having real faces to love. This is part of the mystery of authentic human existence (#87).
By “relating to others,” especially those who are made poor and are marginalized, we come into contact with the divine present in creation. This encounter deepens our understanding of the word, strengthens the bonds of love among members of the human family, and makes more perfect our Chritian witness that the “kingdom of God” is founded on justice.
All of this is simply put in the words of St. Columban: “a life unlike your own can be your teacher.”
And as is true of anyone we love, this encounter compels us to give our time and our resources to ensure that they thrive everywhere they call home. That’s why we have a particular responsibility to dismantle the racism that displaces Haitians and other migrants from their homes, and that now prevents them from finding safety here. Each of us is being called in to combat the sin of racism and help make possible God’s vision of the world, where each person is treated with dignity and compassion.
If you want to learn more about the experience of Haitian migrants and enter into deeper reflection on these important issues, we invite you to to watch the recording of our webinar, “Confronting Racism: What People of Faith Can Learn from the Experience of Haitian Asylum-Seekers at the US/MX Border.” You can watch it you here.
You can also download a two page overview on Haitian migration by clicking on the link below. This two-pager can be used as a parish bulletin insert, a flyer at events, or as a handout for policymakers.