The Haitian migration crisis
Made in the U.S.A. and enforced by the imperial border regime
This is a lightly edited transcript of a November 23, 2021 webinar sponsored by Haymarket Books, Spectre Journal, DSA Immigrant Rights Working Group, and the Tempest Collective.
While now six weeks old, the roundtable discussion nonetheless remains predictably, if depressingly, relevant. The Biden Administration is now facing a lawsuit—funded in part by the Haitian Bridge Alliance—by immigrants who were violently abused by Border Patrol agents in south Texas during a now infamous September migrant “round-up.” Agents were photographed whipping and chaining Haitian migrants, in images redolent of the days of slavery. Meanwhile, the conditions in Haiti appear to be deteriorating at a geometric rate. Following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July, the current president survived another assassination attempt last week. The political crisis in Haiti is just a reflection of the acute social and economic crisis driving a pattern of migrancy that is not likely to end soon.
Ashley Smith: Welcome to this panel, “The Haitian Migration Crisis Made in the U.S.A. and Enforced by the Imperial Border Regime.” I am Ashley Smith, with the journal Spectre. Our panel will address the Haitian migration crisis. The Biden administration, in collusion with states throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, is blocking Haitian migrants, denying them the right to asylum, and subjecting them to deportation back to horrific conditions in Haiti. This panel will explore how all this is a product of U.S. imperialism and its expansion of the border regime throughout the region.
I want to thank our many co-sponsors—Haymarket Books, Spectre, the DSA Immigrant Rights Working Group, Witness at the Border, and the Tempest Collective. I will introduce each speaker and then turn it over to them. First, we have Guerline Jozef, who is co-founder and Executive Director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance. She’ll be followed by Daniel Tse, who is the Asylum and Detention Task Force Coordinator at the Haitian Bridge Alliance and founder of the Cameroon Advocacy Network. Then we’ll have Todd Miller, who is the author of several books, including Empire of Borders and Build Bridges not Walls. And finally, we’ll have Camilo Perez-Bustillo, who is a member of Witness at the Border, co-founder of the International Tribunal of Conscience of Peoples in Movement and co-author of Human Rights, Hegemony and Utopia in Latin America. Without further ado, I want to turn it over to Guerline and Daniel.
Guerline Jozef: Honor and respect, thank you so much for having us today. I think we are in a critical time, and it is important that we have this conversation. It is such an honor to be with such amazing panelists. Let’s examine the Haitian migration crisis. How did we get here? Those are questions that we hear about every day.
For people who do not know, the Haitian Bridge Alliance is an organization that literally was founded to address the needs of Black migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. Haitian asylum seekers started arriving there beginning in 2015. They had no advocates, and no one understood their language. So, we formed to provide a safe space for Haitians.
When I traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, I met with Black migrants not just from Haiti but also from Cameroon, from Guatemala, from Venezuela, from Cuba, from everywhere. We went for the Haitian migrants but stayed for everyone. Last year, we started the first Black immigrants’ bail fund, and we started paying bond for seven people from five different countries including Haiti, Cameroon, Malawi, and others. The Haitian Bridge Alliance is trying to change a system that cannot be allowed to continue.
The latest wave of Haitian migration started in 2010 after the earthquake. People went to Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, and then, to escape unemployment and discrimination in the wake of the recent economic crisis, they made their way to the United States with the expectation that the Biden administration would let them find refuge here. But instead, at the bridge in Del Rio, Texas, the U.S. border regime blocked them, deported them, and expelled them back into Mexico.
This is not the first time Haitians have been treated in such a racist fashion. We can go back to the 1970s and ’80s when Haitians fled dictatorship and political turmoil. They were treated completely differently than Cubans who fled political turmoil in their country. Our Cuban cousins who happened to be of lighter shade were welcomed, while Haitians, who happen to be of darker shade, were detained and deported. In fact, the immigration prison system as we know it today was first built for Haitians. That underscores the anti-Black racism of the border regime.
The racist treatment of Haiti and Haitians by the United States goes all the way back to our revolution, which abolished slavery and won our independence in 1804. The U.S. and the other slaveholding empires isolated us and turned what had been one of the richest colonies in the world into one of the most impoverished nations. Despite this, Haiti represented freedom for people from all over the world in search of a safe space.
Haiti provided refuge for Venezuelans in their struggle for liberation, solidarity with independence movement in Latin America, and passports for people fleeing the Holocaust. The Haitian people have always been a thorn in the side of the great powers. Despite their oppressive treatment of us, as a Haitian saying goes, “We are still here.” Even when it seems impossible, we are still here.
Now I want to have a dialogue with Daniel. I will let him introduce himself, and then we will talk about his journey and how it relates to the struggles of Black immigrants. His story is the same as the hundreds and thousands of Haitians we saw in Del Rio.
Daniel Tse: Thank you so much, Guerline. Thank you, Camilo, and Todd for being here on this amazing panel. I am Daniel Tse, an asylum seeker from Cameroon. I am a fruit of the work the Haitian Bridge Alliance has been doing on the border for Black migrants from Haiti and countries all over Africa. My country, Cameroon, is in the heart of Africa, with cultures, traditions, and food from countries throughout the continent. But it is a country that is drowning in several crises. Government repression keeps the people in horrible, unspeakable living conditions.
Just like Haiti, these conditions are the result of the United States and European powers providing military support and training as well as resources given to the regime to use against its own citizens. They are doing the same in many other predominantly Black countries, from Somalia to Haiti.
Their policies are causing people to make dangerous trips and journeys across Africa to the United States to seek refuge. The United States treats us as nothing because we are Black. The U.S. arrests us, chains us on our hands, legs, and waist, detains us in horrible conditions, and deports us. This is what the Biden administration is doing. That’s why we are calling on them to stop their horrible policies that are causing the destruction of our home countries – and then treating us poorly when we come to seek refuge from conditions they caused.
I fled violence and persecution in Cameroon and made the journey to Central America. I made it into Mexico, but when I tried to get into the U.S., I spent a year locked up in an ICE detention facility. It was horrible. This whole immigration detention system, just like the prison system, was designed for Black people. They incarcerate Black people and profit from them. They erase our identity, our humanity, our dignity. It is absolutely uncalled for. I am just one example of countless others. Our brothers and sisters at the border are being treated just like I was.
GJ: Thank you so much, Daniel. I have to tell everyone: Daniel just graduated law school from Chapman University. I met Daniel in Tijuana and thought I would never see him again. He ended up in immigration prison 10 miles from me. After he got released, he went to law school and then graduated with his law degree. Now he is leading the cause and giving back to the community – not only as an attorney, but as a fighter for those with whom he made the journey, whether they are from Haiti or other countries.
I want to return to what happened in Del Rio. I witnessed much of it. Everybody asked me, what was it like? The only thing that separated me from the people under the bridge was chicken wire. It wasn’t just separating me from the people–it was separating me from myself. I was literally looking into the eyes of 14,000 people who could have been me. I was looking at myself on the other side of that chicken wire.
As a Haitian American woman, as a Black immigrant, as a descendent of enslaved people, I cannot explain what it was like to see the inhumane treatment of people under that bridge. The whole world saw the pictures and the videos of what I witnessed firsthand. The terrible thing is that the United States is getting away with it without being held to account for their racist actions. They have done everything they can to make it hard for those they abused to win justice.
They have literally erased, silenced, and disappeared all the potential witnesses. I will repeat. The United States has erased, silenced, and disappeared all the potential witnesses. How can we have an investigation when they have disappeared the key witnesses that could testify and hold the administration to account for its human rights abuses?
That is what we have been dealing with for a very long time, especially over the last three presidential administrations. It was bad under Obama, but at least we secured [Temporary Protected Status] TPS. Under Trump it got even worse. He implemented policies such as “Remain in Mexico,” which forces refugees to stay in Mexico while they apply for asylum, and Title 42, which shuts down the border to migrants and refugees under the cover of the Covid health emergency. But that was always an alibi. We have vaccines, and we have quarantines that could treat migrants and refugees and prevent any transmission. That would in fact be very easy.
Of course, Trump wouldn’t do it. But neither has Biden. He has kept the border closed for all people–even those who have proper documents for visa holders. As a result, people have gotten stuck in Mexico. All those who are coming up from Latin America through the dangerous Darien Gap, where many die, will not be able to find refuge. They will instead be subject to racist abuse by the border patrol.
For Black immigrants from Haiti and Cameroon, just as for Black people in general, there is no safe space for us. We have been forced by U.S. policies out of our homeland to make a journey of thousands of miles, crossing 11 borders, searching for a safe space. Yet there is no safe space for us. Our women are getting raped in Colombia. Our people are getting shot in Panama. Our people are disappearing in Mexico. Right now, the U.S. and Mexico are constructing a prison state in Tapachula, a Mexican city in Chiapas near the border with Guatemala, to handle Haitians and other Black migrants. The border regime is criminalizing Black bodies.
AS: Thank you for your leadership in this struggle, Guerline and Daniel. If people want to follow the work of the Haitian Bridge Alliance and the Cameroon Advocacy Network, please go to their websites. I will now turn it over to Todd Miller.
Todd Miller: Thank you, Daniel and Guerline, for your words, your testimony, and your work in fighting for justice for Black migrants. It is really a pleasure to be here with you and with Camilo. I am going to talk about the U.S. border in the Caribbean. When I think of the U.S. border in relation to Haiti, one of the first things I think of is the 2010 earthquake.
Five days after the earthquake, there was a jumbo jet sent over Haiti by the United States. That jet played a pre-recorded message in Creole from the U.S. ambassador telling quake victims: “Listen, don’t rush on boats to leave the country. If you do that, we’ll all have even worse problems. Because I’ll be honest with you: if you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”
Imagine hearing that message amidst an earthquake that killed more than 200,000 and left a million homeless. Those words were backed up by border enforcement measures. 16 coast guard cutters showed up in Haitian waters. The private prison company Geo Group activated prison bases in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba expecting people would leave. Almost right away, the United States had set up a border all the way to the shores of Haiti. That shows how elastic and massive the U.S. border regime is.
This should change how we think about Washington’s border regime, which we usually associate with walls and patrols along the border with Mexico. It is far more extensive than that. Over the last 25 years, we’ve witnessed a dramatic, historic expansion of the border regime. Its budget has soared from $1.5 billion in 1994 to $25 billion this year. This massive increase has translated into walls, barriers, and surveillance technologies like drones and balloons, and 28,000 armed agents deployed along the Mexican and Canadian borders and throughout the Caribbean.
Almost always, the Caribbean flank of the U.S. border is understated. U.S. officials have called it the “third border.” Washington has dramatically expanded its border regime in the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico. If you go to the West Coast of Puerto Rico, you will find a border patrol station there. The Coast Guard and CBP patrol the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola, which includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
When I was in the area doing research, I spoke with a park ranger who worked on Mona Island, which is closer to the Dominican Republic shore than it is to Puerto Rico. He told me that he was deputized to be an immigration enforcement agent. Imagine that. He’s a deputized U.S. border agent about 1000 miles from the United States mainland on this small island that’s about 30 miles from the Dominican Republic.
He told me the story about a boat that was headed somewhere other than Mona Island, but it crashed on it. People got off the boat. All of them were from Haiti. What did the park ranger do? Immediately arrested them for not having documents to be in the United States. That’s just one example of the expanded U.S. border presence in the Caribbean.
Another one is that the U.S. has a [biennial] exercise called Integrated Advance. CBP, the Department of Homeland Security, and Southern Command come together and practice interdicting people and repatriating them back to their home countries. This is part of the strategy of externalization of the U.S. border—extending the U.S. border regime farther and farther beyond the actual border of the U.S. to police and intercept migrants close to their countries of origin.
In pursuit of this policy, the United States has struck agreements with over a hundred countries to help form their own border patrols, train them, and help construct border walls. The U.S., for instance, helped the Dominican Republic construct their border regime to police Haitian migrants. In 2006, the United States Customs and Border Protection sent an assessment team to look at the Haitian Dominican border. Their assessment was that it was porous. So, under U.S. advice, the Dominican Government issued a presidential decree to establish its own border patrol.
In 2012, when I visited Dajabon, which is on the Dominican side of the border with Haiti, the border patrol was active in policing their own border wall. Those officers looked just like the Border Patrol in Nogales south of where I live in Arizona. They were sitting there stopping people from crossing the Massacre River.
I want to emphasize that thinking of the U.S. border as just the Mexican border is reductive. The U.S. border regime is expanding all over the world. The U.S. has helped construct a global border regime. There are now 63 border walls. There are hundreds of thousands of border patrol agents that are in different parts of the globe and many if not most of those are trained by the United States. There are over 2000 detention centers around the world where people are incarcerated.
When we criticize this vast apparatus and call for open borders, people say it is going to cause instability. But the opposite is the case! U.S. imperial policy is the source of so much instability throughout the world. Washington’s aggressive, militaristic foreign and economic policies throw whole countries into crisis. And to keep this instability in place, the U.S. must impose its border regime.
AS: Thanks so much, Todd. That puts the so-called migration crisis in a bigger context. Camilo, I am sure you will do the same. So, I will turn it over to you.
Camilo Perez-Bustillo: I am so honored to be here with Guerline, Daniel, and Todd and to support and express solidarity on behalf of Witness at the Border and on behalf of the International Tribunal that’s been convened by Haitian scholars, migrants, and human rights defenders in Mexico and Colombia to respond to the regional dimensions of this crisis.
I want to stress how important it is we support the work of Haitian Bridge Alliance, of the Cameroon Advocacy Network, and of the UndocuBlack Network. They highlight the inherent racist, xenophobic, and imperialist character of the border regime. And they lead struggle for Haitian migrants and all Black migrants.
I am a human rights lawyer, scholar, and advocate. This is what I teach about, and this is what I try to practice. When we talk about the history of the idea of universal human rights, we still have the tendency to think about it as a Western or European invention. We need to de-colonize our understanding of human rights.
We have to understand that the origin of that concept, of universal human rights, was the struggle of the enslaved people of Haiti for their liberation. It was the Haitian Revolution that made human rights truly universal for the first time. Haiti became the first independent republic to abolish slavery and to declare that if any slave, any enslaved person, set foot on Haitian soil, they would automatically become subjects of the rights of universal citizenship.
That was the Haitian Revolution. Not the French Revolution. It was the French Revolution that learned from the Haitian Revolution. Those of us who read C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins know this history. That’s what Guerline, the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Daniel, and their testimony and voices represent today.
We must think about the fact that we have just experienced in the U.S. the largest mass deportation of any group of migrants since 1954: the mass deportation by the U.S. of almost 9000 Haitian migrants from Del Rio. But it was not just Haitians, as Guerline pointed out. There were several hundred more from neighboring Caribbean countries, from the Bahamas, from Cuba, from Mexico.
That was the largest mass deportation since the 1950s. What was the last mass deportation of this sort in the 1950s? It was officially called Operation Wetback, and it was carried out by Border Patrol in 1954. They deported tens of thousands of Mexicans out of the U.S. Biden’s deportation of Black migrants in Del Rio reminds us of these past violations of human rights.
We are all complicit in these atrocities if we don’t act against them and stop future ones. Now what produces these violations of human rights? It is produced by the iron cage of exclusionary policies that constitute a machinery of migrant death at the border that is now being extended throughout the region and throughout the world as Todd and others like Harsha Walia have documented.
We have to understand what’s going on at the U.S. border and the southern borders of Mexico as an integral part of this. These policies and practices are being reproduced not just on Mexico’s northern and southern border but also on the border between Colombia and Panama. My family is from Colombia. That’s where my roots are. I am here also speaking as a Colombian in solidarity with my Haitian brothers and sisters currently trapped at the border. There are tens of thousands of Haitian and African immigrants trapped there.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was just in Bogota inking a deal with the illegitimate regime, which just repressed a popular uprising by the people of Colombia. Part of that deal is to seal the border and prevent the forward movement of tens of thousands of Haitians and others trapped at the border between Colombia and Panama. The same is going on in the Caribbean as Todd has told us.
So, the key thing to understand is that Remain in Mexico, Title 42, mass deportation, the repression of the caravans of migrants including thousands of Haitians, and the state of detention that’s been created at Mexico’s southern border, are all pieces of the same machinery. That machinery is what we must stop with our activism, with our consciousness, with our critical reflection about what’s happening now to Haitian migrants and to Cameroon asylum seekers. We must stop the application of these cruel methods of torture, of chaining human bodies, of creating new systems of bondage in the name of immigration and border policy against Cameroonians, Haitians, and other migrant peoples.
In a sign of all that’s wrong and what must change, the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and DHS just turned away the complaint about the wielding of reins as whips against migrants in Del Rio. They dismissed it as a personnel matter rather than a civil rights complaint. Fortunately, they have agreed to investigate what they call “The Wrap,” the method of shackling people in stress positions after arrest and even during long-haul deportation flights.
We have to hold those entities within DHS responsible and accountable—the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The House of Representatives Oversight Committee needs to supervise the handling of those complaints and assess whether they have been appropriately addressed. We need to hold the Biden administration itself accountable for all these crimes against humanity.
Let’s go back to everything we have learned from the struggles for liberation of the Haitian people, beginning with the concept of universal rights, and apply that to what is being done today in the name of U.S. border and immigration policy. In 1791, the Haitian people rose up. In 1804, they declared independence. And today it is the Haitian people and Black immigrants leading us in this struggle. We need to stand with them everywhere where we can mobilize our consciousness and our hopes and fight for justice.
AS: Thank you, Camilo for those powerful words. Now let’s turn to some questions for the panel. I had some questions first for Guerline and Daniel. Del Rio brought the crisis to everybody’s consciousness. But after all the deportations and expulsions, the issue of Haitian migrants has dropped from the headlines. What happened to the deportees and the people who have been driven back into Mexico and back into other countries in Latin America?
GJ: Three things happened to the people who were under the bridge. First, close to nine thousand have been deported. That includes pregnant women and women with babies as young as just a couple of days old. Second, a few thousand were pushed back to Ciudad Acuña in Mexico. We went to visit people there because we wanted to understand what happened. They told us about the border patrol using their reins as whips and forcing them back across the river into Mexico.
Third, many were allowed into the U.S. A few were released. We are still working [on] trying to give them a home, a space, a foundation so they cannot just survive, but thrive as they continue their journey in the United States. But far too many were jailed in immigration prisons and are still there. Those people are still in limbo. We are fighting for them to be released. As a matter of fact, last week, we requested that those people be released because they are potential victims and witnesses of what happened in Del Rio.
I can share the story of one person who was deported. She is a mother who had a newborn infant. She was handcuffed on her deportation flight back to Haiti. Her hands and her feet were shackled to a chain around her waist while she was trying to hold her baby. She and the other migrants were told that they were going to be brought to their relatives in the United States. That was of course a lie as they were being deported.
En route, the baby fell out of her mother’s arms. None of the officers got up to help. The baby rolled down the aisle of the plane. The mother and other migrants started crying and screaming for them to return the baby to her. But it wasn’t until 30 minutes later that one of the officers uncuffed one of her hands so she could pick up the baby.
Once those who have been deported arrive in Haiti there is absolutely nothing for them. There is no organization to guide them. They were dropped at the airport with the promise that they would get $100 to help them sort out their lives. That was cut to $50 and then $25.
Imagine somebody who left Haiti as a survivor of the earthquake in 2010, made their way to Brazil or Chile, barely survived working bad jobs for low wages, and then left to make the journey through Colombia, Panama, the Darian gap, and Mexico in the hopes of finding refuge in the U.S. Then the Biden administration arrests and deports them to Haiti and gives them $25! How can they rebuild their lives with that?
Meanwhile, the United States spent $15 million on 84 flights (to date) to deport 9 thousand Haitian people. I cannot even begin to explain all the mental health issues and tragedies that we have discovered in working with these migrants. Many have committed suicide because there is no other way for them to move forward.
DT: Each time this topic is brought up, it is always a hard mountain for me to climb because it is my personal experience. I have been in those chains. It is a horrific experience. All the people I work with tell me the same story of being shackled during arrest and deportation. They put chains around their ankles. They cannot take steps more than 8 inches. That’s how tight the chains are on your hands, waist, and legs.
I have heard many stories like the one Guerline told of how the guards ignored the baby that fell out of her mother’s arms. They didn’t do anything to help for the longest time. They don’t care. They don’t even think. They give you food to eat but you are in chains. How are you going to eat with your hands manacled to your waist?
Imagine being on the plane from here to a country in Africa for over 20 hours, and they don’t care if you are eating, drinking water, or using the restroom. All they care about is putting you in chains and punishing another Black body that is not welcome in this country. This is nothing new. It is not something that started today.
The world can see it now in the pictures that have come out recently, but it has been happening for centuries. It is now time to put a stop to it. Haitian and Black-led organizations are leading the fight to defend Black migrants, stop deportation, and end the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, who are looking for a chance to live a good life in safety.
The United States and other imperial powers caused most of the problems that drive people from their homes but then block their attempt to find refuge, jail them, and deport them. Why? Because we are a darker shade. The treatment of individuals seeking asylum is uncalled for. Being locked up for a long period of time put in chains in cold rooms is uncalled for. No person should be treated in that way.
AS: Thank you so much, Daniel. I wanted to ask Camilo and then Todd about the role of the Latin American governments in this border enforcement. Camilo can you talk about the role of the Mexican state in the border regime? What does it do?
CP-B: That’s critical to understand what Guerline was described in Del Rio and what’s going on at the northern and southern border in Mexico. U.S. immigration and border policies are being enforced and implemented on Mexican soil through direct cooperation, collusion, complicity, and co-responsibility between U.S. and Mexican authorities.
That started 20 years ago but has only intensified. It became what was called the southern border program. This cooperation in border enforcement led directly to what Guerline described. Mexico has become a space of containment for thousands of Haitian and other migrants.
Central American migrants have been recurrent victims of the same cruelties committed by the U.S., its support for reactionary regimes, and its subcontracting of border enforcement to Mexico and other states to block people’s flight. Many indigenous communities were victims of this matrix of cruelty. Guatemala is one example and there are many more. This is all the continuity of the structural violences that are embedded in U.S. policy towards Latin America.
The Mexican government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is directly complicit and responsible in the Biden administration’s repression of migrants. His government has been carrying its own deportation flights. They have their own deportation processes against both Central Americans and Haitians. And they collaborated directly in the largest mass deportation since the 1950s.
They are doing everything possible on the ground to contain and repress migrants. They are trying to deny people their right to freedom of movement. What we are calling for from Witness at the Border, from the International Tribunal of Conscience, is a struggle for the global recognition of the right to freedom of movement, the right to migrate, especially where you have migrants denied decent, dignified conditions of life on the ground because of U.S. policy and intervention. There is a duty of international solidarity to fight for the right to freedom of movement.
While the U.S. is the main opponent of this right to migrate, the Mexican government is working with it hand and glove. It is equally responsible for these crimes. AMLO is doing this in return for other forms of cooperation that serve his regime’s interest.
He is misunderstood on the Left in the U.S. as somehow a Leftist. He is clearly not. Ask anyone on the ground in Mexico, in Mexico’s human rights movements, in the movement defending the rights of Indigenous peoples to territory, land, and self-determination. We should include him in those who need to be held responsible.
AS: Todd, can you further describe the internationalization of the border regime?
TM: The southern border program that Camilo mentioned was implemented in Mexico in about 2014. By 2015, Mexico was deporting more Central Americans than the U.S. That alone tells you all you need to know about the Mexican state and its complicity with Washington’s border regime. Really, Mexico’s southern border is now the frontline for U.S. border enforcement. In fact, one U.S. official said that the southern border of the United States is no longer the border with Mexico. It is now the border between Chiapas and Guatemala.
But it’s not just that the U.S. has secured collaboration from the Mexican state. It has done the same with many other countries throughout the entire region. For example, Guatemala now has border patrols to stop people from coming up from the south and block any from going out of the country to the north.
During a research trip, I went to one of the Guatemalan border patrols on the Honduran border to see if the United States anything to do with it. The first thing the commander told me was that the Guatemalan government got all the money for the program from the U.S. Embassy. That’s just one of many examples of how the U.S. has externalized border enforcement.
It not only supplies the money to states to recruit and train their border patrols, but also transfers resources and equipment to them. The U.S. supplies them with armored jeeps and guns. CBP has what they call a layered border strategy of building up border protection further and further beyond the U.S. Thus, CBP has operations in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and even Kenya. You go almost anywhere, and the U.S. is securing border enforcement agreements.
It’s horrific when you think about it. The U.S. simultaneously devastates countries through their political and economic policies and then blocks people from leaving to find a better life. That’s its history in Latin America and the Caribbean. They get away with it, as Harsha Walia says, by framing the problem in the media as a border crisis.
When you take a step back, this is absurd. The border isn’t in crisis. It is not a victim. It is an inanimate object. We must reframe the problem as a displacement crisis caused by U.S. policies. Once you do that, you ask new questions like: Why are people leaving? What are the policies and practices of the United States that are responsible for their flight?
CP-B: Right now, as we speak, Mexico is trying to contain and repress a caravan of Haitian migrants and others with its national guard, military, and border agents armed and financed by the U.S. In Guatemala, U.S.-backed forces are doing the same thing. And it was at the northern border in January of 2021 that 19 migrants were massacred, 16 of them Indigenous, by the Mexican police — trained, of course, by the United States. All of this is concrete, not abstract, and human lives are at stake.
The governments that are doing this are fanning the flames of xenophobia. Look at the elections in Chile now. The far-right candidate, José Antonio Klast, won in the first round. The runoff is coming up in December. Klast rose in the polls by riding the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment against Haitians and African migrants on Chilean soil. He took a page right out of Trump’s playbook. The right throughout Latin America is increasingly doing the same thing. This is a real danger in Latin America and U.S. funding for these countries’ border regimes magnifies it.
AS: Coming off what Todd just said about the displacement crisis, I want to ask Guerline and Daniel about why people are leaving Haiti and why people are leaving Cameroon?
GJ: I don’t think we have enough time to go into the details. But let’s just start with the current crisis on the ground in Haiti. The current government is a U.S. puppet. We have no president since the last one was assassinated, and in that vacuum, the U.S. essentially handpicked the country’s new ruler. He must call the U.S. to get approval for everything he does from when he goes to bed at night to when he wakes up in the morning.
All the U.S. cares about is containing the crisis their policies caused in Haiti and stopping the flow of migrants from conditions they know are terrible. For example, the United States put out a memo recommending that all U.S. citizens leave Haiti because of the political and economic instability. But at the same time, the U.S. is deporting people to Haiti.
When we talk about the movement of bodies and we talk about borders, I always point out who gets to move and who doesn’t. Remember during the storm in Texas, Ted Cruz got his family and went to Mexico because he felt that was the safe space for him to be at the time.
Borders don’t exist if you are in power, if you have the money to get on your private jet, if you have your proper passport and credentials. So, Cruz and his family could escape the inconvenience of not having ice in their fridge to flee to Cabo because they’re rich and white. Compare that to the Haitian migrants who are fleeing genuine exploitation and oppression.
The movement of bodies has been part of human history. How did we get here? Whether you believe in science and evolution or believe in faith, we all came from somewhere. Because we needed to migrate to survive and thrive, we are here right now. I always say that if your forefathers came from the Mayflower they were fleeing for safety, liberation, and the pursuit of happiness.
The same is true of the people at the U.S.-Mexico Border right now. The movement of bodies is a natural thing for us to do as we continue to search for protection from violence, whether it is domestic violence or natural disasters or external or internal violence. That’s what drives people out of their homes.
I had a friend in California 10 years ago. Things were not working well for her, so she went back to her hometown in Oklahoma, and now she is back in California. That is the freedom of movement. That should be a right for all people. The border that the United States has pushed all the way down to Panama is only reserved to punish and criminalize the most vulnerable, those most in need of protection.
DT: We must understand history to figure out why people migrate. We know from history how European countries captured and enslaved Black people in Africa, setting back our development. Later they scrambled to divide up the continent into colonies in order to plunder them.
Even after decolonization and independence, the great powers have continued to control African nations. We know that the United States and other imperial countries make decisions that then get implemented in ostensibly independent countries.
In Cameroon, we have endured all this history, and it has created conditions that cause people to flee the country. We have a ruler that has been in power for more than forty years. He’s still hungry to rule even though he cannot walk, cannot reason, and cannot even talk properly. His regime is brutal. It has repressed and detained opposition leaders and denied people basic democratic rights.
It can do so in part because it has been funded and armed by France as well as the U.S. It uses the military equipment provided by them to torture and execute innocent civilians. The United States, France, and other powers have hands deep in African countries, their politics, and their economics. They use whoever is in power for their own purposes and enable those regimes’ atrocities.
These horrible conditions drive people to seek refuge in the United States. But then when we come to the U.S., we are met with walls, border guards, detention, and deportation. We are driven out of countries but denied the right to move. I had to fight tooth and nail for my basic rights.
I hear people talk about visiting Europe. I can’t go to Europe. I don’t have that freedom of movement because I am a Black immigrant. Rich white people travel of their own free will; we don’t. The United States and European powers have driven us from our homes and then try and block us from seeking refuge in their countries.
AS: We have a couple questions from our audience. I am going to pitch the first one to Todd. One person asks what policies are border patrol agents using to justify imprisonment of refugees?
TM: There are some new policies that they use, but at bottom, the border patrol exists to do what it is doing and has done since its founding in 1924. Even before that, previous iterations of the border patrol were not only imprisoning but also brutalizing refugees.
It began with the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the late nineteenth century. The U.S. started using this idea that there is a “threat” on the other side of the border and that’s why it needed a border patrol to hold it at bay.
More recently, the U.S. and its border patrol use what they call a deterrent strategy. For the last thirty or forty years, they have turned to border enforcement, walls, and incarceration as a threat they believe will deter people from trying to migrate to the U.S. from Latin America and the Caribbean.
But of course, it doesn’t work. It merely forces people to cross in more dangerous places like the sea or the desert where they risk dying to get into the U.S. And people do die in massive numbers. Thus, [the] deterrent strategy fails to stop migration, because desperate people will come regardless of the obstacles, and even worse it essentially kills people.
And those that the border regime captures either at the border or in the U.S. are incarcerated for the invented “crime” of migration. Such incarceration is a profitable part of the prison industrial complex. It breeds further brutal policies like those of the Trump administration, which separated families and threw kids in cages.
AS: Now a question for Camilo. Under the Trump administration, Democrats condemned the caging of kids and some even demanded the abolition of ICE. But now that they are in power, they are silent about Biden’s continuation of some of Trump’s worst policies and have dropped talk of systemic reforms in the interests of migrants. How should the migrant justice movement and the labor movement relate to the Democratic Party?
CP-B: I think the main thing we must do is hold whoever is in power accountable. Too many have suspended this approach now with Biden in power. They have done this in general and specifically about his border policy. People are afraid that if you criticize Biden and the Democrats you somehow serve the interest of the right and of Trump.
But standing up for migrant justice is essential to our communities. We cannot betray or sacrifice them by forgiving or ignoring the Democrats’ intolerable policies. Whoever is in power, regardless of the party, regardless of the administration, must be held responsible.
That is especially true now with the Biden administration. It has kept Title 42 in place. They continue to entertain the idea of reviving Remain in Mexico. They are denying the right to asylum on both sides of the border with the cooperation with Mexican authorities.
They are arming and financing and encouraging this expansion of the border regime to enforce these policies. We must hold them responsible. Every time a migrant is detained, beaten, whipped, or chained; we must act as if we were. That’s the way we need to respond and that’s from where we need to act.
AS: Guerline and Daniel, how do you think we should approach the Biden administration?
GJ: President Biden ran on this idea of “Build Back Better” and “Saving the Soul of America.” I personally fell into the trap of the “Saving the Soul of America” because I believed him when he said that it made sense because for four years, we saw the soul of America completely being destroyed by Trump.
As a Christian, when Biden said he wanted to save the soul of America, I said that’s what needs to happen. But, for migrants, he has failed to deliver on his promise. What does “Build Back Better” mean for Black migrants and all immigrants?
We don’t have a system to build back. We must change the system that was rooted into the selling of Black bodies, the destruction of Black lives, the forcing of Haitians who fought for their freedom into permanent debt wages to punish us for overthrowing slavery.
And what does “Saving the Soul of America” mean to Haitians deported from Del Rio? Their souls were literally being destroyed under Del Rio bridge. And so are the souls of those traveling up north through Panama and Colombia only to end up in soul-destroying immigrant detention centers. From the vantage point of Black migrants, Biden’s promise “Build Back Better” and “Saving the Soul of America” is hollow. To really achieve such goals would require the U.S. to act better.
President Biden cannot turn his head and say he doesn’t understand what’s happening. He has been in power and in government for the past 60 years and has overseen all the policies we are fighting against. That’s why as Camilo said it doesn’t matter who is in the White House: if their policies continue to destroy lives, we must hold them accountable. And we must push for positive demands like the legalization for the 11 million undocumented workers in this country.
Think about it, these workers, especially the farm workers, proved themselves essential during Covid. As we are getting ready for big meals on Thanksgiving, we must remember that these people are the only reason why we have food on our table. These people must have equal rights if this country is going to have a just foundation to build back better from.
DT: If policies are bad, it does not matter who is in office. We must hold them accountable and demand change. For example, Trump put kids in cages, and we protested that. But those cages have existed for a long time and have been used by many presidents.
Now Biden has put kids in cages. It’s wrong no matter who is in charge. And that’s just one example of all the bad policies that Biden has upheld. Black immigrants and other immigrants are still facing the same issues we have faced under the last few presidents and for long before them.
We are tired of having the same discussion about the same issues. We want justice. It is time for better policies for Black immigrants and the 11 million undocumented workers who have been holding this economy together throughout the pandemic. We need to be able to live freely, earn livable wages, and be able to live without fear of being captured, jailed, and deported. We fear ICE raids. This is all uncalled for.
How much more can we talk about the unequal treatment that Black immigrants and African asylum speakers are facing? Please, the administration needs to act. If the Biden administration wants to be better, it is time for them to stop playing deaf ears to the cries for justice, the letters upon letters, and the millions of meetings. Nothing is happening. We can’t keep doing this. We are tired of fighting this fight and we need action to happen now.
AS: Todd, do you have anything to add?
TM: I agree with everything that’s been said. I just want to mention one thing. I worked on a report that looked at campaign contributions from border industry companies during the 2020 election. I looked specifically at Biden and Trump and compared them. I expected donors would lean more to Trump or the two would split contributions 50/50. But low and behold, it was 3 to 1 in favor of Biden.
He hauled in most of the money from the very companies that are getting major contracts to carry out surveillance, to build walls, to build detention centers, and to detain and incarcerate people. That shows the Biden administration is beholden to corporations at the heart of the border regime. We should be aware of that in all our organizing in the coming months and years.
AS: Guerline, maybe you can close with some final words.
GJ: The Haitian migration crisis has been hundreds of years in the making. It has been caused by the European powers, the United States, and their policies. They have created internal violence in Haiti and subjected it to the external violence of intervention and occupation. We need everyone around the world to join us in our fight for liberation. As we say in Haiti, many hands lighten the load.
Our call to humanity is to please join us in this fight for freedom, liberation, equality, and love for all people. The Haitian people have been pioneers of liberation, pioneers of freedom, and we will continue to fight for our collective freedom. We are all interconnected. We cannot exist without one another. It takes all of us to move forward as a people and create a future for all people.
Title 42 must end. They can no longer use that as a health crisis while we are literally opening our borders for anyone who has proper documentation to come in. Borders are a made-up idea, and they are brutally oppressive for people who are vulnerable and can’t defend themselves. Join us in our struggle.
Featured Image Credit: People of Cap-Haitien. Photo by Alex ProimosImage modified by evan d.
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