The inscription on the Statue of Liberty should read ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free—unless they are Haitian’. During the week of February 16, 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that, “based on conditions on
the ground” in Haiti, the U.S. has deemed it appropriate to resume deportation to the country. An astounding 30,299 Haitian men and women were served deportation orders; an additional 598 are detained and 243 are under house arrest.
The announcement perpetuates a history of oppressive and inhumane policies—originating with a 1981 agreement signed by then-President Ronald Reagan and the oppressive Haitian dictator Jean- Claude Duvalier—that can be summed up in three words: interdiction-detention-deportation. One may wonder why the U.S. government continues a policy agreement made with a Haitian dictator on one hand while condemning the Cuban dictator and offering Cubans an expedited process to citizenship on another?
Furthermore, what are the “conditions on the ground” that merit a continuation of these draconian policies? According to the Miami Herald, Gonaives, Haiti’s third largest city, uninhabitable; most of the nation’s livestock, food crops, farm tools and seeds destroyed; irrigation systems demolished; collapsed buildings throughout the country; 23,000 houses destroyed; another 85,000 damaged; 964 schools destroyed or damaged; 800,000 people left homeless and more than 800 dead; inadequate access to sanitation and clean water; and the widespread threat of disease conservatively about $1 billion in storm damage.
USAID estimates that 2.3 million Haitians now face “food insecurity,” reeling from prices 40 percent higher than in January. U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek and countless other officials visiting Haiti after the storms have called this the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the island. Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Haiti, Hédi Annabi, asserted that the storms had “comprehensively destroyed what little infrastructure there was.” The administration can not feign ignorance about the conditions in Haiti. Michaelle Jean, Canada’s Haitian-born Governor General, spoke to President Barack Obama directly about the “terrible” devastation she saw on her trip to Haiti.
Somehow, based on these “conditions on the ground”, the administration has further concluded that the Haitian case does not currently warrant Temporary Protective Status (TPS). However, TPS was granted and extended for 82,000 Hondurans and 5,000 Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and to 260,000 Salvadorans after an earthquake in 2001. What differs between the single natural disasters that these countries faced and the four hurricanes from which Haiti is still recovering? Why does the promise championed at Ellis Island not apply to the shores of Biscayne Bay?
Perhaps the U.S. does not want to induce mass migration of immigrants seeking asylum—Haiti is, in fact, closer to Miami than all other countries but Cuba. Of course, the United States must take measures to control the flow of people across its borders. However, history refutes this fear. Citing human rights abuses and civil strife in Haiti, in 1997, former President Clinton granted Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) to Haitian nationals in the U.S. who had fled the military junta in Haiti. No subsequent influx of Haitian immigrants ensued.
Perhaps Mr. Clinton said it best in a 1997 statement: ”Haitians deserve the same treatment we sought for Central Americans… Staying the deportation of these Haitians and obtaining for them permanent legislative relief will help support a stable and democratic Haiti, which, in turn, is the best safeguard against a renewed flow of Haitian immigrants to the United States.” Although, Mr. Clinton’s pleas fell on the deaf ears of Congress, I can only hope for the day when Haitians finally qualify for the change promised to America and the world during President Obama’s inaugural address. I remain steadfast and optimistic that the American Dream which was been achieved by the Irish, German, Chinese, and Cuban immigrants before us, will finally apply to Haitians. Policies established with a dictatorial regime with no consideration for human rights almost three decades ago must now be replaced with policies that respect the dignity of desperate, impoverished, and frightened people fleeing their homeland. As a starting point, President Obama, TPS should be accorded to Haitians in light of the actual “conditions on the ground”: massive devastation caused by severe storms in 2008 and worsened by a food crisis and the global economic crisis.
Francois is an M.A. Candidate, and a research assistant at the United States Institute of Peace