Profile

Successive waves of Haitians have emigrated to the United States (US) from the early 19th century, particularly after the collapse of the repressive regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier, known also as ‘Baby Doc’, in the late 1980s. Political instability, poverty and a series of natural disasters, including the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, have driven further migration. The population of Haitian Americans has risen steadily, from 290,000 in 1990 to 830,000 in 2009 according to US government data, with around two-thirds concentrated in Florida and New York. In addition, there is a sizeable population of Haitian immigrants in the country.

Historical context

Haitian refugees have endured particular troubles in the 1980s and 1990s that set them apart from other black Americans.

Because Haitian governments historically have been sponsored by the United States, Haitians have seldom been accepted as refugees. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan authorized the US coastguard to intercept and repatriate Haitians encountered on the high seas en route to the US as illegal immigrants. The screening process admitted only 0.1 per cent as legitimate asylum seekers. In 1991 Haitian advocates filed suit, challenging this process under the 1980 Refugee Act and international law. The suit was dismissed, but resulted in the screening process being moved to Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba.

In 1992, because of a false scare over high AIDS rates in Haiti, HIV testing was added to the screening process. Those found positive were held without procedure for release or repatriation. A further suit in 1992 challenged conditions in the Guantanamo Bay camp – where ill refugees were held without medical treatment or adequate nutrition – as well as the discrimination represented by the fact that non-Haitian applicants were not detained according to HIV status. In May 1992, President George Bush shut down the screening process and ordered all interdicted Haitians repatriated, in contravention of the Refugee Act.

When Bill Clinton was elected later that year, he promised to re-examine the case, as Haitian boat people continued to arrive in huge numbers. After a series of reversals on the issue, in 1994 he agreed to process Haitians like other asylum seekers, and sought to relieve immigration pressure instead through US military intervention against the illegitimate government of Haiti. Some Haitians returned home after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s reinstatement, while others applied to stay in the US for economic reasons and out of fear of the continuing strength of military and terrorist forces in Haiti.

Haitians who fled their homeland because of opposition to the military junta faced retribution from Haitian military-sponsored death squads operating in the US. Despite appeals from the Haitian community, US officials did little to investigate or prosecute offenders, and connections between these squads and the US Central Intelligence Agency have been exposed.

Some Haitians, like some Afro-Cubans, have also faced prosecution for their practice of the Santeria faith, which involves ritual animal sacrifice. However, in 1993 the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling against Santeria practitioners saying that the government’s legitimate concern for public health and animal welfare ‘could be addressed by restrictions stopping far short of a flat prohibition of all Santeria practices’.

Current issues

Haitian immigrants and asylum-seekers have been particularly affected by the under-scrutinized practices of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and one of its successor agencies US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Even after the Guantanamo Bay refugee camps were closed, Haitian new arrivals have been held in inadequate facilities in the US with no clear indication of how long they would be detained. Some of these detention centres have been leased out to private contractors, who allowed conditions to degenerate to the point that riots ensued. Inmates have little legal recourse and are often inaccessible to friends, family and legal counsel.

In 2010, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 100,000 people and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, the Obama administration gave Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to tens of thousands Haitians in the US – affording them the right to work legally and preventing them from deported. However, this protection was subsequently revoked by the Trump administration. In November 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced that TPS for Haitians would end in July 2019; the move put 60,000 Haitians at risk. Critics have accused Trump of being driven by racist prejudice towards Haiti as well as Africa following derogatory comments he reportedly made in January 2018. The revocation of TPS has since been challenged in the courts, and in October 2018, a federal judge ruled that plans to revoke TPS for four countries, including Haiti, should be suspended pending a final decision.