Haitians at the border: A Brethren response

By Galen Fitzkee

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is currently facing the compounding crises of political unrest following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the effects of a destructive 7.2 magnitude earthquake, and the aftermath of Tropical Storm Grace. These events, as terrible as they are individually, also exacerbate existing problems like gang violence and food insecurity throughout the region.

A close examination of the history of Haiti reveals that these terrible living conditions were originally spawned within a context of colonialization and failed United States policy. Despite a significant slave revolt and formal declaration of independence in 1804, the US refused to recognize Haiti as a country for the next 60 years, fearing similar slave uprisings in southern states (“A History of United States Policy Towards Haiti” by Ann Crawford-Roberts, Brown University Library, https://library.brown.edu/create/modernlatinamerica/chapters/chapter-14-the-united-states-and-latin-america/moments-in-u-s-latin-american-relations/a-history-of-united-states-policy-towards-haiti).

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After finally acknowledging the nation, the US intervened militarily, politically, and economically seeking to further our own interests. Coups, US-backed oppressive dictatorships, and unbalanced trade policies destabilized and impoverished Haiti, leaving leadership unable to respond to the needs of their citizens.

Following the 2010 earthquake, an unprecedented number of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) flooded the island, circumventing the government yet again and failing to empower Haitians to guide their own recovery. Themes of corruption and injustice are present throughout this timeline.

As a result, the situation in Haiti today is truly miserable and it should come as no surprise that upwards of 12,000 migrants, mostly Haitian, have decided to flee their homeland in search of jobs and safety. Pushed by lack of opportunities elsewhere and potentially pulled by promises of a more humane immigration system under the current administration, many Haitians made the dangerous trek to the US border in Del Rio, Texas to claim asylum and seek a better life (“How Thousands of Haitian Migrants Ended up at the Texas Border” by Joe Parkin Daniels and Tom Phillips, The Guardian, Sept. 18, 2021, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/sep/18/haiti-migrants-us-texas-violence).

When they arrived at the border, however, it was announced that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would begin expelling Haitians back to where their arduous journey began, potentially putting their lives at risk.

The Biden administration has largely relied on a policy known as Title 42 to justify expulsions in the name of public health, against the better judgements of many public health officials (“Q&A: US Title 42 Policy to Expel Migrants at the Border,” Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/08/qa-us-title-42-policy-expel-migrants-border#). The policy has the unique distinction of being both immoral and illegal because it denies migrants the opportunity to claim asylum and transports them back to a country reeling from political and social crises.

Striking images of border patrol agents on horseback violently mistreating Haitians went viral earlier this week, prompting further questions about accountability and oversight of our immigration process as a whole and reminding us that our immigration policy is often used to discriminate against people of color.

When addressing these issues as a church, we first must recognize that the founding members of the Church of the Brethren were immigrants themselves, seeking religious, political, and economic freedom. As noted by a 1983 Annual Conference statement about this topic, this history often has framed our response to immigrants and refugees from around the world. In practice, Brethren have called on the federal government “to efficiently process immigrants’ claims for status by standards of fair procedure, to adequately fund the agency to assure its proper operation, and to seek staff who will be sensitive to cultural differences” (“Undocumented Persons and Refugees in the United States,” 1982 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference statement, www.brethren.org/ac/statements/1982-refugees).

Brethren take seriously the biblical calls to welcome the stranger and alien (Leviticus 19:34, Matthew 25:35), especially those fleeing violence and oppression. Brethren even have taken the critical step of addressing the root causes of mass migration, which do not get nearly enough attention on the government level. In partnership with L’Eglise des Freres d’Haiti (the Church of the Brethren in Haiti), we have implemented programs like the Haiti Medical Project and have provided grants through the Global Food Initiative (GFI) and Emergency Disaster Fund (EDF) seeking to improve the physical and spiritual lives of many Haitians.

Recently, Brethren Disaster Ministries directed an EDF grant of $75,000 to relief and recovery efforts of the Haitian Brethren following the recent earthquake in southwest Haiti. In the long run, this type of effort will surely be the most effective way to reduce immigration and ultimately prevent abuses on our southern border. (Contribute financial support to the EDF at https://churchofthebrethren.givingfuel.com/bdm. Contribute financial support to the GFI at https://churchofthebrethren.givingfuel.com/gfi.)

In the present context, our emotional and spiritual reaction to the crisis at the border, our past Annual Conference statements, and our partners in Haiti spur us to speak out against our immigration system. It is clear, first of all, that the illegal and immoral expulsion of Haitian asylum seekers must halt immediately. Haitians at the border deserve to be welcomed with dignity and given the chance to make their case for asylum. Title 42, the flawed policy used to circumvent due process for desperate immigrants, should be repealed to prevent future abuses. Alternatively, structures for accountability must be set in place so that immigrants are protected from harm, as suggested years ago by Church of the Brethren statements. At the bare minimum, our immigration policies must recognize the humanity of Haitian immigrants and have compassion for their plight.

Today’s Action Alert from the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy offers ways to get involved, go to https://mailchi.mp/brethren.org/afghanistan-10136605?e=df09813496.

— Galen Fitzkee is a Brethren Volunteer Service worker serving at the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Peacebuilding and Policy in Washington, D.C.


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