Anti-Blackness Knows No Borders and Neither Should Haitian Migrant Rights Advocacy

The recently launched Hemispheric Network for Haitian Migrants’ Rights connects Haitian leaders across borders to advocate for the rights of Haitian migrants and confront discriminatory policies.

September 6, 2023

The U.S. Coast Guard patrols the Haitian coast in the vicinity of Port-au-Prince in October 2022 in order to deter “dangerous, irregular maritime migration.” (U.S. Coast Guard / Seaman Rachelle Amezcua-Gonzales / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“People are leaving Haiti as if their lives depend on it,” wrote Emmanuela Douyon, a Haitian activist and policy analyst now based in Boston, in July. Under de facto Prime Minister Ariel Henry, the security situation in Haiti is rapidly deteriorating. Politically-connected gang violence has forced the internal displacement of more than 165,000 people and caused a humanitarian crisis. It has also contributed to Haitians’ decisions to seek safety elsewhere. In response to an increase in emigration, governments across the Western Hemisphere are shutting their borders. For those who succeed in migrating, they often trade gang violence and a climate of fear for a life constrained by racism and xenophobia. The anti-Black racism that Haitian migrants have faced at every point knows no borders; the advocacy needed to combat it cannot afford to, either.

Examples of the region’s clamping down of borders abound. They include the U.S. government effort to ban asylum, the closure of the U.S.-Canada land border to asylum-seekers, and the joint U.S-Colombia-Panama 60-day militarization campaign aimed at “ending the illicit movement of people in the Darién [Gap],” the land bridge connecting North and South America, by increasing the presence of officers and turning back migrants. Although a U.S. humanitarian parole program announced in January includes Haitian nationals, it preferences the privileged: those who apply must already have passports and name U.S.-based sponsors, requirements that are out of reach for many Haitians. The United States and many countries in the region have collaborated to restrict the routes which less privileged Haitian migrants take.

The Haitian people who manage to enter other countries despite attempts to militarize borders and block access to ports of entry are often met with anti-Black racism. In the fall of 2021, this racism was televised at the U.S.-Mexico border, when more than 14,000 Haitian asylum-seekers arrived in Del Rio, Texas, some of them facing violence and threats of whipping at the hands of U.S. border patrol officers. More than 17,000 were deported over the following six months. While that incident briefly broke into the news cycle, discrimination has quietly—and not so quietly—stalked Haitian migrants throughout their journeys for the past decade. They’ve experienced racist immigration policies, discrimination in the workplace and hospitals, physical abuse by immigration agents, and sexual violence on the migrant trail.  

Because this discrimination has pervaded the experience and lives of Haitian migrants regardless of their destination, new solutions and avenues of advocacy are needed. For this reason, the Hemispheric Network for Haitian Migrants’ Rights was launched in May 2023 to support the work of Haitian leaders and advocates, pool much needed resources, and demand the humane treatment of Haitian people in a time of acute crisis.

Racist immigration policies aimed at Haitians are not new. In the early 1980s, Haitian immigrants were the first to be mandatorily detained in U.S. immigration prisons. A decade later, when Haitian people were baselessly blamed for the spread of HIV, the Coast Guard intercepted Haitian asylum-seekers at sea and detained them at Guantánamo Bay, repatriating most but holding those who were HIV-positive. What is new is the geographic spread of Haitian immigrants throughout the hemisphere, and with it, new iterations of anti-Blackness.

Before 2010, most Haitian migrants landed in the United States, Canada, and the Dominican Republic. Since the devastating 2010 earthquake, more than half a million Haitians have left their country, with an estimated 300,000 settling in Latin America. Subsequently, in response to limited access to economic opportunities as well as racism, tens of thousands of Haitian people left where they had settled in Latin America to travel by boat, bus, and foot to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands are currently stuck in Mexico, waiting for permission to present themselves at a point of entry. 

The Need for Regional Organizing

Countries in the Western Hemisphere are failing to respect the rights of Haitian people or treat them with dignity. Once Haitian migrants land in new countries, governments provide them with few rights and few legal pathways to legal residence, and our research shows that many international NGOs and service providers are not reaching Haitian migrant populations. Although Haitians make up a significant proportion of migrants in numerous Latin American countries, they face restrictive (im)migration policies that prevent status regularization, as well as linguistic barriers and anti-Black racism that compound the impact of these policies.

For many migrants, Haitian diaspora organizations provide the only safe space. Often with limited resources, Haitian-led organizations provide services, support, and advocate for the rights of their own communities. When immigrants with no in-country ties are stranded, hospitalized, or die, these organizations provide aid, contact family members, make funeral arrangements, and show up in solidarity. When governments prevent families from reuniting or when immigration enforcement includes extreme measures—like Dominican authorities targeting Haitian women in hospital maternity wards for detention and deportation—they’re often the first ones to sound the alarm. Their leadership is critical. Haitian migrant leaders should be the ones shaping the narrative about their experiences in transit and while they struggle to make a life in their destination countries.

Hemisphere-wide discrimination can only be challenged and overcome with hemisphere-wide solidarity. This past spring the Global Justice Clinic (GJC), a human rights clinic at New York University’s School of Law, collaborated with the Haiti-based Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED), a member of the Migration for Development and Equality Hub, to identify gaps and needed services for Haitian migrants in the region. The team interviewed nineteen migrant-serving organizations in Chile, Colombia, and Panamá, most of whom reported that they did not provide services to Haitian migrants. In response to these interviews and months of consultations with Haitian activists and migrant rights leaders, the Hemispheric Network for Haitian Migrants’ Rights was launched. The Network serves to link these leaders and Haitian migrant-serving institutions together across borders in order to advocate for the rights of community members that are in desperate need of protection. The collaborative work of the Network has shown that while Haitian migrants are visible targets for discrimination, they are too often invisible to service providers.

“Haitians are pushed out of Chile and forced to travel through the Darién Gap because of the lack of opportunities to regularize their status as compared to other migrants,” says Michel-Ange Joseph, a Haitian activist based in Chile and Director of the Legal and Social Sciences Research Conclave Foundation (Fundación CIJYS). Joseph notes that additional obstacles faced by Haitians in Chile include “the absence of Kreyòl interpretation for service providers and racism, especially towards Haitian workers and children.” Structural exclusion leads directly, therefore, to continued and repeat migration.

The Importance of Haitian-led Advocacy

One barrier to addressing anti-Black racism is the reluctance to admit or name it. For example, three interviewed migrant service providers stated that racism is not an issue because their countries are racially mixed, three mentioned that only aporophobia (the fear of the poor) is an issue, and seven explained that both operate in tandem. A Latin American ideology of mestizaje (racial mixture) may be a vision of racial harmony for some, but in reality, such a narrative minimizes the region’s legacies of colonization and slavery,  often negating Afro-Latinidad and shielding against accusations of racism. The construction of race in Latin American countries that both welcomes racial mixture and permits anti-Blackness complicates how governments and service providers treat Haitians. In short, while these organizations debate the existence of racism in their countries, Haitians are directly experiencing the everyday reality of racism.

Two shifts need to occur. First, Haitian-led organizations must receive the resources they need to provide care to their people and spearhead advocacy efforts—they are best situated to do so. Second, in turn, these leaders can guide the more established and often better resourced service providers as they aim to include Haitian migrants and provide aid, in Haitian Kreyòl, recognizing the unique vulnerabilities and human rights violations that they face.

The Hemispheric Network can advocate for how existing migration protections can be extended to Haitian migrants. For example, the Colombian government has created several programs specifically for Venezuelans that permit status regularization and economic inclusion, such as the Special Permanence Permit (PEP) and, more recently, the Permit for Temporary Protection (PPT). Interviewees suggested that the Colombian government extend its PPT program, which has been characterized as a “remarkable model” by other governments, to Haitian migrants, who are similarly situated.

As one organization interviewed by the GJC and INURED noted: “Additional migration services, through laws and clinical programs, were created in response to Colombia receiving the largest number of people fleeing Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.” Another organization—the names of which are not identified here due to informed consent agreements—highlighted the selective nature of these services: “We receive international financing, including from the United States, to work exclusively with Venezuelan migrants.” Yet, in January and February 2023, Haitians made up over a third of the migrants who crossed the Darién Gap. This increase, and the broadly recognized humanitarian crisis in Haiti, have not led to increased migrant protections.

Rather than provide specific protections to Haitian migrants, the governments of Colombia, Panamá, and the United States have joined forces—literally—to militarize the Darién Gap in an effort to deter migrants from going north. They call this the 60-day campaign. It is an example of how the United States externalizes its border and exports draconian immigration policies, rather than acknowledge its historic debt to Haiti and claim accountability for occupying, exploiting, excluding, and intervening in the affairs of the first independent Black republic for centuries. It is a debt shared with Canada, France, and other powerful countries.

One thing is clear: there are insufficient resources for Haitian migrants, in transit or settled, as they seek safety across the hemisphere. The hemisphere-wide coalition of Haitian leaders is an important first step, and a space for collective power building. The GJC has begun hosting gatherings that facilitate cross-border connections between advocates and mechanisms of transnational advocacy. It is partnering with Network members to pursue avenues of strategic advocacy before national, regional, and international bodies, collectively making demands that confront the anti-Black and anti-migrant policies that Haitian diaspora communities face across the region.

Change is possible—this hemispheric-wide moral failure cannot remain the status quo. The Hemispheric Network is one place for those affected by anti-Black and anti-Haitian discrimination to join forces, envision a new reality where Haitians are welcomed with respect for their rights and dignity, and implement change for Haitian migrants. It is past time for allies, funders, and governments to recognize that those most directly affected are the ones whose leadership and perspectives should be the most valued and followed—this Network provides them with an opportunity to do just that. 

Gabrielle Apollon is a human rights attorney and Director of the “Rights without Borders: Haitian Immigrant Rights Project” at NYU School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic. She is Haitian-Canadian and a former immigration attorney.

Alejandra Torres is a 2022-2023 Masiyiwa-Bernstein Fellow with NYU Law’s Global Justice Clinic and a 2023-2024 Tuttleman Fellow with NYU Law’s Robert and Helen Bernstein Institute for Human Rights. She graduated from NYU School of Law in 2022.

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