Immigrants to the United States have often faced discrimination based on race and nationality. Some immigrant groups, such as the Irish. Chinese, and Mexicans, have entered the U.S. in large numbers and have provided a source of cheap labor. But when these groups are perceived as threatening to displace the native labor force, discrimination has escalated and immigration rights curtailed. Haitians who have attempted to enter this country have encountered this sort of discrimination, especially since the late 1970s.
In June 1980, the U.S. State Department estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000 Haitians had entered the U.S. Haitians have also migrated to the Bahamas, Turks, and Caicos, other West Indian Islands, and Cuba [although the Cuban government does not allow them to stay]. Haitians have fled their home country for a variety of reasons, both economic and political. Six million people live on the poorest third of the island of Hispaniola which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Only about one-seventh of Haiti's land is arable, and this land is eroding at a rate of one percent per year. These conditions combine to make Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a per capita yearly income of about $100.
Corruption in the national government has exacerbated the nation's poverty since "Papa Doc" Duvalier took power in 1957, and has continued under his son, Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Not only is the Haitian government corrupt, it is repressive and authoritarian. Policies often take a violent form. Opposition to the ruling regime has never been allowed in any form. There is no free press, and no opposition party in the government. "Justice" is often administered by vigilante groups known as the Ton Ton Macoutes. Official justice is purchased through bribes and contacts with government contacts.
Haitians have migrated to other countries for both economic and political reasons. But the U.S. government classifies Haitians as "economic" not "political" refugees in order to justify deportation, and because it is friendly with the anti-communist Haitian government. The U.S. government pursues this policy despite Amnesty International's recommendation that Haitians be treated as political refugees.
Haitians who have sought to escape the nightmare of their country have risked being found out and sent to one of Haiti's notorious prisons. Boats constructed for escaping the island are small and leaky, the passengers in danger of drowning, disease, dehydration, and starvation. The voyage's hardships lead some to commit suicide by jumping overboard. As French or Creole-speaking Blacks, Haitians who reach the U.S. face racial discrimination and language barriers, and during 1978-79, registered Haitians in the U.S. uniformly had their work permits revoked, making deportation almost certain.
A second reason for the U.S. government's continued policy of deporting Haitian refugees is its insistence that the refugees do not suffer reprisals when they are returned to Haiti. This argument was confirmed by a State Department task force which visited Haiti in 1979 to investigate the fate of returned refugees. But the composition and methods of the task force undoubtedly influenced its findings. The groups consisted of white men who spoke neither French nor Creole. It made no attempt to locate returned refugees who did not appear voluntarily, and only 10 percent of the returned refugees were finally interviewed. Interviews were conducted within earshot of local authorities. Members of the task force told the returned refugees whom they interviewed that nothing would happen to them if they revealed that they had been the victims of reprisals upon return to Haiti. Those interviewed were told that they could contact the U.S. Embassy if they suffered harassment as a result of revealing earlier reprisals, but they were given no specific information such as where the Embassy was or who they should contact there.
Despite the conclusions of the task force, Haitian sources continue to assert that reprisals against returned refugees do, in fact, take place. These sources insist that returned refugees are routinely subjected to search. Confiscation of valuables, detainment, and sometimes, imprisonment. They argue that the absence of court records documenting these reprisals reflects the fact that the returned refugees do not have the privilege of a court trial, and some end up in prisons Haitian authorities claim to have closed.
Since 1979, when they began to enter the U.S. in significantly larger numbers that before, Haitians began to be seen by many as a threat, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) responded with the "Haitian Program." The explicit goal of this program was, according to INS Deputy Commissioner Mario Noto, to affect and improve physical expulsion" of Haitians.
The expulsion, according to the Miami-based Haitian Refugee Center, has been carried out without due process of law. Haitian refugees are not informed of alternative channels through which their appeals for asylum could be heard (such as the U.N.). Furthermore, they argue that the program's goal of uniformly expelling applicants for asylum is unprecedented and unfair. Proof of this policy was an INS form which left no space for granting asylum for Haitians, only for "denial" and "doubtful" status.
The movement to protect the rights of Haitians refugees has gained popular support as evidenced by marches in New York and Miami. Prominent public figures such as Jesse Jackson. Andrew Young, and Senator Ted Kennedy, as well as the organizations Amnesty International, The National Council of Churches, the Alien Rights Project, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, have also lent support to this movement.
In 1979 the Haitian Refugee Center, the Alien Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and the National Immigration Rights Project, successfully sued the INS and then-Attorney General Civiletti for discrimination against Haitians and for denying them due process of law in their petitions for asylum. They argued that Haitians were not adequately interviewed to ascertain whether they had suffered persecution in Haiti. As a result of this litigation, U.S. policy toward Haitians now more closely approximates the 1968 U.N. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or country of origin.
The situation of Haitians forced to leave their homeland continues to be grim. In August 1979, a Haitian woman and five of her children drowned off the Florida coast after the men who transported them panicked and threw them overboard. In November 1980, 102 Haitians were stranded for over 30 days on a tiny island near Cuba, with almost no food or water. Mental and physical anguish often made Haitians in refugee camps in the U.S. become confused, disoriented, and suicidal. Haitian refugees believed that America might provide a respite from the poverty and repression of Haiti; instead they found themselves in squalid temporary refugee camps, with the likelihood that their requests for asylum would be summarily dismissed.
Last year, the New York Times reported that Haitians were being exploited as migrant laborers "because of the language barrier, their inexperience at farm labor, and their uncertain residency status" [21 August 1980). Unemployed or poorly paid Haitians were lured to migrant labor camps in Maryland by promises of earnings of $60 or more a day. Once there, they found little or no work, often ending up in debt for rent and transportation. Accommodations for the refugees in the labor camps were said to be primitive, overcrowded, and often filthy. Some refugees claimed, however, that even these squalid conditions are better than life without work in the cities and refugee centers of this country, or returning to Haiti.
Despite the success of the suit brought against the INS, there continues to be great difficulties for the Haitian immigrant. Getting decent work and finding a place to live pose serious problems, and a source recently reported that Haitians' rights to due process are still being violated. President Reagan's policies concerning Haitian immigration remain to be seen. It can only be hoped that he will finally end the discrimination which has singled out Haitians from all other refugee groups.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.