Why the Haitian struggle matters for anti-racism activism

Photo: Wiener family archives, unknown photographer, showing Wanda Wiener (Haitian activist, lawyer, journalist, playwright, actress & dancer) protesting during the Duvalier era against the U.S.’s deportations of Haitians from the U.S. to Haiti.

By Charlotte Wiener, Medium, Jan. 18, 2021

There are key moments in history when a photo or a video makes the world stop, pay attention, and act against the brutal reality of injustice. Derek Chauvin, a white U.S. police officer, choking George Floyd, an unarmed black man, to death, for nearly 10 minutes on video, is one such moment. The video needs no explanation, it is a quintessential case of racially motivated police brutality and it was the spark that re-ignited the anti-racism struggle in the U.S. and across the world.

A video of U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) agents on horses corralling and rein-whipping Haitian refugees and migrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border into Del Rio, Texas, shocked and horrified many, but did not reach that tipping point of massive anti-racism action. Instead, government officials, politicians, and commentators disputed the seriousness of what was witnessed, at times justifying the actions of USBP agents. The Biden administration denounced these shocking images, while at the same time continuing to defend existing border policies. President Biden consolidated this exercise in “image control” when he declared “It’s simply not who we are!”, thereby negating the enduring consequences of the violent culture inherited from years of slavery in the U.S. and the U.S.’s past mistreatment of Haitians.

While the video of the USBP agents mistreating Haitians is already yesterday’s news, it remains incredibly relevant to the cause that moved people to massively denounce anti-black racism and police brutality in the U.S. What happened in Del Rio was not an isolated incident involving some deviant USBP agents. Rather, it represented a small manifestation of a much larger systemic problem that is at the very heart of anti-blackness in the Western hemisphere. Stepping up anti-racism activism requires an examination of the parallels between the U.S.’s notoriously harsh treatment of Black Americans and the U.S.’s concealed mistreatment of Haitians. The comparison reveals that the anti-blackness that Black Americans are fighting against is the same that Haitians have been fighting against since their Independence.

An early point of consideration is the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915–34), which purportedly intended “to restore order and maintain political and economic stability in the Caribbean.” The concept of “restoring order” was already a familiar rallying cry in the imperialist conquests, but was also pointedly used by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to justify their violent acts. Indeed, the KKK was at the forefront of the U.S. political landscape during the 1920’s, while the Jim Crow laws in the South maintained the violent division of the races. Notably, throughout the period of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, state-sanctioned lynching and abuse of black people along with the elimination of black populations from certain towns in the Southern U.S. were habitual. With such heinous racially motivated crimes being committed with impunity in the U.S., it is easy to imagine how this was manifested in occupied Haiti where Marines from the U.S. South reigned supreme.

The U.S. Marines replicated the U.S. brand of racism, routinely resorting to the use of violence and terror in their dealings with Haitians during the occupation. They reproduced U.S. segregation when they created spaces like the American club where they restricted Haitians from entering. They instituted antebellum practices when they issued Haitians “Bon habitant” (good resident) passes to circulate, which could result in arrest or being shot if not presented to the Marines upon request. The occupying forces even mirrored the ruthless killings of black people in the U.S. by killing Haitians in their attempt to dominate them. In the twenty years of occupation, U.S. soldiers massacred more than 11,500 innocent Haitians with impunity.

During the next decades the U.S. continued to intervene in Haiti supporting successive authoritarian regimes and notably backing the Duvalier dictatorship from 1957 to 1986 from father to son. In these years, thousands of Haitians, fearing for their lives, left their homeland to seek refuge in the U.S., and there they were treated similarly to Black Americans. Indeed, immigration policy provided the perfect platform for the U.S. to reproduce the racism that Haitians had already been experiencing with U.S. foreign policy to Haiti. From 1981 to 1991 the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations maintained a policy of illegally interdicting on the high seas Haitian refugees fleeing persecution so as to prevent them from arriving in the U.S. to apply for asylum. During this 10-year period, of the more than 22,000 Haitian refugees who fled Haiti to seek refuge in the U.S. a mere 28 were actually let into the U.S. to apply for asylum.

The first U.S. court case that attempted to challenge these interdictions at sea was lost on appeal. It was coined the “Dred Scott of immigration cases” because the judge held that:

…Haitian refugees, […], have no substantive legal rights under the Constitution which a domestic court is bound to respect.’ Like fugitive slaves, these refugees have been returned to their symbolically political masters with a clear and probable consequence of punishment, persecution, or death.

The ruling is the perfect example of how the ideology of the Antebellum South, though no longer acceptable in this form in the U.S., was perfectly acceptable in immigration matters. In fact, this same stratagem of continuing to use forms of oppression that had been denounced and prohibited from being used against U.S. citizens was still deemed acceptable when used against non-citizens especially if this use occurred outside of U.S. territory and these non-citizens were not white.

The divide and conquer strategy that the U.S. utilizes in its attempt to dominate Black Americans is also relevant, because it was employed and continues to appear in immigration practices applied to Haitian refugees and migrants. The most glaring example of this is the differential treatment U.S. authorities enforced between Haitian asylum seekers and predominantly white Cuban asylum seekers when they were trying to enter and upon entry to the U.S. This discrimination spanned the Duvalier dictatorship and continued throughout the military dictatorship of 1991–94. It occurred under the Clinton administration, despite President Clinton’s campaign promise not to continue with the Bush administration’s policy of intercepting refugees at sea.

In addition to forcing Haitian migrants and refugees in the high seas back to Haiti, the U.S. later extended this practice to those arriving by land. Just as the U.S. Coast Guard was complicit in the abusive control of the waters, to the point of their practices being compared to the “after-life of the slave ship”, the USBP is no less violent in its application of U.S. land border policies. This was evident in the USBP agents’ treatment of Haitian migrants and refugees in Del Rio, Texas, where the backstory was neither filmed nor photographed and hardly commented. It is a story about the denial of the rights of Haitian migrants and refugees and their families. It is an account of USBP agents’ physical and verbal abuse and dehumanization of Haitians. It is the trauma of being chained at the feet, hips and wrists while being illegally deported to Haiti by U.S. authorities. It is the injustice of being deported with infants and children, some of whom are not even Haitian citizens.

In truth though, the USBP agents’ behavior in Del Rio is unsurprising considering their historical origins. At its inception in 1924 the USBP was replete with members of the KKK and Texas Rangers. Regrettably, it has maintained the racism and violence of the past in its current practices. Jenn Budd, a former USBP agent turned immigrant rights activist, denounced this present-day culture of racism in the organization when she explained that “In the academy they mandate and they teach the agents to use racist terms for migrants so that they see these people as ‘others’ and that they are not like them”. Indeed, in addition to the racism demonstrated in their treatment of Haitian migrants and refugees, this “othering” was clearly visible when USBP agents on horseback corralled and whipped Haitians as though they were chattel, a shameful reminder of the U.S.’s pre-civil war past.

Beyond the issue of its own racist culture, the problematic immigration policies that USBP agents are mandated to apply share many common features with racial cleansing, which impacted and continues to impact Black Americans today. From the end of the Civil war and into the 1920’s, violent mobs, often times backed by the U.S. government, forcibly removed thousands of Black Americans from the towns or counties they lived in to reinforce segregationist principles. There was even one carried out in Comanche County, Texas, a 4-hour drive from Del Rio. This is notable because, the racial cleansing of black people and the mass deportation and expulsion of black and brown migrants and refugees are incredibly similar. Racial cleansing, consists of forcing nationals out of a town or area without any regard for their rights. Similarly mass deportation and expulsion also consists of forcing people out of a certain area regardless of their legal claims to certain rights. This means that non-nationals are targeted and forced out of the country without individually examining their asylum case, despite their right under international asylum law and 8 U.S. Code § 1158 to at least have their case examined upon entry to the country. In the case of Del Rio, USBP agent’s actions functionally mirror racial cleansings of the past as they were armed to “protect” U.S. territory by forcing the “other”, in this case the Haitian migrant or refugee, out of the territory.

Moreover, similar to past U.S. administration’s interdiction at sea policies that prevented Haitians from even being able to apply for asylum, the Trump administration’s use of Title 42 forcibly obstructs migrants and refugees from accessing and exercising their right to request asylum in the U.S. This health law, invoked at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, continues to be used by the Biden administration as a pretext for U.S. authorities to refuse migrants and refugees entry to the U.S. Public health officialslawyers and judges in their rulings, have denounced Title 42’s targeted use for migrants and refugees entering the U.S.. It effectively circumvents individual examination of their cases thereby making it no different from mass expulsion and eerily reminiscent of racial cleansing.

If this was not enough, Haiti is actually in the midst of a brutal political, social, economic and humanitarian crisis, due in part to pernicious foreign interference. The unrest is so extreme that, in the face of sustained lobbying, the Biden administration conceded it to be unsafe for Haitians living in the U.S. to return to Haiti and granted them Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Conversely, President Biden, in perfect line with his predecessors’ unlawful treatment of Haitians arriving in the U.S., is now responsible for “the largest mass expulsion of asylum seekers in recent history”. Denounced by many including the U.S. Envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote, who resigned in protest, the U.S.’s actions do not break the cycle of continued racist interventions in Haiti and towards Haitians, but instead continue to propagate the root causes for migration in Haiti.

Ultimately, the treatment of Haitians should matter for anti-racism activism in the U.S., and globally, because what happened in Del Rio is an integral part of the complex web of systemic racism that was revealed and denounced after Floyd’s murder. The colonial roots are one and the same, the racial violence is identical, and the discrimination is indistinguishable from that which white supremacists have been using to dominate black people for centuries. As the world moves on to other stories, when will we massively stop and act upon the injustice that Haitians have suffered and been suffering since the day they exposed a truth that the world was simply not ready for? Haitians shattered the ideology of racism on that fateful day in 1804 by simply and powerfully existing and they have been paying for it ever since. It is time to dismantle the cycle of violence and it begins by coming together to denounce the paternalistic, racist, and colonialist treatment of Haitians not only in the U.S., but also by Americans and foreigners in Haiti and in the countries where Haitians immigrate within the hemisphere and across the world.


Learn more:

· If you are interested in learning more about U.S. organizations that are dedicated to supporting Haitian migrants and refugees in their struggle, you can reach out to the following organizations:

Haitian Bridge Alliance, Inc (HBA)

Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH)

Family Action Network Movement (FANM)

Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees

Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI)


Catholic Legal Services

Quixote Center

• You can find the statistics in regards to deportations to Haiti on the International Organization for Migration’s website. The latest report can be found here.

• If you are interested in using your social media accounts to let others know about HBA/ILL/JAC’s federal class action lawsuit, Haitian Bridge Alliance v. Biden, which denounces anti-black racism in the immigration system, you can use the social toolkit that HBA created. The press release, which is linked to in the toolkit, is at http://bit.ly/HBAvBiden.

• If you are interesting in supporting Haitian self-determination and learning more about the Haitian led solution to the crisis in Haiti these links are a good start:

Haitian led solution

Supporting democracy and human rights in Haiti



Writer: Charlotte Wiener

Charlotte is a human rights lawyer specializing in the rights of migrants, refugees and stateless people in France, Martinique, the Dominican Republic and the United States. Through her work, she regularly challenges the barriers and impediments these populations face in accessing protection, public services, justice and the enjoyment of their rights. In 2017, Charlotte created and taught the first ever course on refugee protection at the Université des Antilles in Martinique. Charlotte’s publications include writings on migration issues pertaining to Haitian and Haitian Diaspora populations. Her most recent lengthy publication was a bilingual French/Spanish Migration Policy Brief entitled “Forced Migration: Land Deportations from the Dominican Republic to the Republic of Haiti” (2020) with the think tank OBMICA (Caribbean Migrants Observatory), where she has also published regularly in their bulletin. Charlotte currently works as an attorney for Haitian Bridge Alliance, in San Diego, California.

Contributor and Editor: Kamilah Morain

As a humanitarian and international development professional, with a Master’s Degree in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration from the School of Advanced Study, University of London, Kamilah Morain has acute knowledge of the politics of refugee and migrant rights. Having collaborated on and led international aid and development initiatives in Africa, the Caribbean and South America before joining the Pan American Development Foundation in 2020, she also has expert knowledge of foreign policy. As an Associate Researcher at the think tank OBMICA she publishes regularly on questions of mobility in the Caribbean, statelessness, economic resilience and the impact of migration on Haitian and Haitian Diaspora populations in OBMICA’s bulletin.


Posted Jan. 22, 2021