When thousands of Haitian migrants are pictured trekking across the shallow waters of the Rio Grande, only one description comes to mind: chilling. But what’s more disturbing is the Biden’s administration's insistence on deporting these refugees.
Historically, the situation in Haiti has been far from stable. Since its founding in 1804, Haiti has undergone an imperialist occupation, dictatorships, economic exploitation, and a series of military coups. In 2010, the situation worsened when a devastating earthquake displaced about 1.5 million Haitians. The earthquake of magnitude 7.0 was devastating, killing a 1,297 Haitians and damaging more than 12,000 homes.
The recent July 7, 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has only caused further instability. This political vacuum, combined with surging rates of gang violence and food insecurity, has prompted thousands of Haitians to migrate to the Texas–Mexico border. Many Haitians are also escaping a more recent hurricane that demolished the South, which has left many Haitians without access to safe drinking water.
Despite the clear humanitarian crisis, the Biden administration has doubled the deportations of Haitian migrants at the border. Released images show patrol agents on horseback whipping migrants, and many deportees claim being chained during transit.
Biden is following Title 42, a health code enforced under the Trump administration that cites the pandemic as a reason to deport refugees—this means that Haitian refugees are being deported without the opportunity to request asylum.
This pattern of a racially biased immigration system is entrenched in American law. Over the years, many have been systematically targeted through legislation: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the discriminatory Immigration Act of 1924, and the pro–European Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
The crackdown on undocumented immigration began with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. Under the guise of maintaining law and order, it mainly targeted migrants from Central and South America. And especially after 9/11, Islamophobia became a normalized part of public discourse.
This all culminated in Trump’s notoriously xenophobic legacy: a “Muslim ban” prohibiting entry of migrants from seven Muslim–majority countries, a repeated desire to “build a wall” to keep out Mexican “drug–dealers and r*pists,” and a drastic reduction of refugee admissions to just 15,000 annually. Trump’s explicit labelling of the pandemic as the “China virus” also contributed to the rise in anti–Asian attacks nationwide.
Even today, undocumented immigrants of color face stricter punishments than their white counterparts. There is no defined statute of limitations for unlawful status; meaning that law enforcement has room to prevent Latino border crossers from adjusting to legal status while enabling non–Hispanic visa holders to get permanent residency. This is why 90% of those deported are Latino, despite making up just 57% of migrants.
“I think what we’re seeing at our borders it’s just a fear of the other… What’s so important to drive home is that this is a humanitarian crisis, not a political one. Nobody chooses to be a refugee, to be persecuted, to be fearing for their lives. Nobody chooses this life,” says Hannah Erdogan (C ’23), captain of Penn for Refugee Empowerment, a Penn–based mentoring program for refugee youth.
Fernando Chang–Muy, who teaches Refugee Law and Policy at the School of Law, describes how the asylum process is notoriously difficult, understaffed, and underfunded: “There are many physical and legal barriers that make it difficult for Haitians to come in and tell their story.”
First, there are physical barriers to arriving at the border, such as deserts, rivers, and transportation costs. Second, there are many barriers at the border: trip wires that detect human entry, border patrol agents, and unsustainable living conditions.
Third, the asylum process is fraught with problems. Requesting asylum is a feat in itself. Refugees must fill out a 12 page English–language form proving that they fit the legal definition of a refugee, meaning that they are “persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”
Since most migrants don’t speak English, and must turn to nonprofit lawyers from understaffed organizations to represent them before asylum officers and immigration judges. Once this form is sent, it typically takes between six months and several years to process.
While waiting for a response, asylum–seekers cannot even qualify for a work permit until their case is won or 180 days have passed without a decision by the immigration courts. During this limbo period, asylum–seekers must somehow find a job, obtain a residence, learn English, and support their families.
Most concerning, asylum law does not even account for refugees who have fled their homes due to poverty, gang warfare, political turmoil, or climate change. “Our refugee law is very focused and limited … saying ‘my country is undergoing civil war,’ for example, or ‘I am escaping gangs and poverty’—that’s not the definition of a refugee,” Professor Chang–Muy explains.
So where does that leave Haitian refugees? Biden has granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians who were already in the United States illegally, meaning Haitians can stay in the US for 18 months before deportation. But for Haitian refugees at the border who are not granted TPS, do not have a company sponsoring them, or do not have a spouse in the U.S., the room to fit the narrow legal definition of a refugee is much too difficult.
In a world wrought by a pandemic, terrorism, and climate change, it is clear that expanding the legal definition of refugee is long overdue.
Aside from the humanitarian aspects of accepting more refugees, there are innumerable economic benefits. Immigrants work at high rates, maintain the national senior–to–working–age ratio, and fill labor needs in local economies with worker shortages. Children of immigrants also tend to obtain higher education, higher earnings, and work in higher–paying professions than their parents.
As a general rule, immigrants are very hard–working and entrepreneurial, creating new companies at twice the rate of native–born Americans. Just in 2018, immigrants contributed $458.7 billion to federal taxes and had $1.2 trillion in spending power.
While it’s understandable that the Biden administration is concerned about letting in largely unvaccinated refugees, granting people asylum should not be perceived as a health issue. Haitians could quarantine, get tested, and receive two vaccination doses out of the surplus that American hospitals already retain.
Granting people asylum should also not be perceived as a political issue: it is unproductive to have protectionist rhetoric and policies, especially in the midst of a global crisis. If the refugee crisis were depoliticized, it would finally be seen as the human rights issue that it is. Professor Chang–Muy addresses the different perspectives: “On the one hand, some people want to protect our borders and not let native–borns get [COVID–19] … but some people say we should allow refugees to come in and tell their stories.”
The Biden administration should give refugees the right to work, which would be easily accessible if the government funded asylum processes to become more rapid and efficient. The government should also relocate refugees to areas in which there are many jobs available, as well as give them literacy training, language training, and job skills development to find higher–skilled work in the future.
It is up to us to spread cultural awareness about the refugee experience, whether this is through donations, volunteering, self–education, or social media activism. Hannah explains her perspective on raising awareness: “I think that journalists and news agencies are important in what’s portrayed … and I think that large influencers can be very powerful in posting about these issues.”
Hannah, however, believes that individuals with private social media accounts can be more influential than one might think. She concludes that spreading awareness is the first step: “If I open just one person’s mind to a new perspective, I consider that a win.”