[Editor’s note: In recognition of the International Migrants Day (Dec. 18), Just Security is publishing this Saturday special. Interested readers can also explore our extensive past coverage of immigration, migration, and refugee issues.]
“Do not come. Do not come.” Few will forget the June 2021 news conference when Vice President Kamala Harris – a child of immigrants – advised potential migrants to forgo their journeys to the United States.
In an era of travel bans and nationalist sentiments, the vice president’s comments unwittingly endorsed rising global hostility toward migrants. The admonition also underscored a deep-rooted problem: the U.S. government’s failure to truly appreciate its role in forming the conditions that coerce emigration.
As we mark International Migrants Day this Dec. 18, the international community – and specifically the United States – must process a legacy of imperialism that contributes to involuntary migration while simultaneously excluding migrants more effectively than any physical barrier.
In the United States, this legacy has manifested itself most recently in exclusionary policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols and the public health code Title 42, which continue a history of cruel treatment against Global South populations, particularly Haitian migrants. It is long overdue for the United States to reimagine migration policies that cease reinforcing imperialism and begin atoning for the harms of its past.
When Migration “Crises” Aren’t Sudden, But Orchestrated
The United States has an earned reputation of undermining the sovereignty and stability of post-colonial States through imperialism and militarism, only to feign shock at the human costs and the migration effects.
U.S. interventions in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia have all driven waves of migration. The evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans following the August 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has garnered comparisons to the resettlement of Vietnamese populations in the 1970s. Much of the Central American migration “crisis” is the direct result of U.S. destabilization efforts, including government overthrows during the Cold War and the catastrophic War on Drugs. Repeatedly, U.S. interventions and attempts at global domination have preceded Global South turmoil. Far too often, the subsequent waves of migration are greeted largely by unwelcoming borders in the Global North.
A particularly striking example is the barrage of crises in Haiti, a nation that cemented its independence from France at the turn of the 19th century to become the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere – and the first to abolish slavery. Threatened by this precedent, the United States is amongst the list of nations that contributed to Haiti’s fragility through interventionist coups, direct invasion, and crippling economic sanctions.
In the last century alone, the United States created civil unrest and intensified economic disparities in Haiti during its nineteen-year occupation, which engineered a U.S.-led Haitian military, a fixed presidential election, legislative manipulation of governance and land rights, and seizure of Haitian finances. At the close of the 20th century, the United States continued its interventionist strategies in Haiti with so-called Operation Uphold Democracy, which temporarily restored a democratically-elected leader on the condition that Haiti adopt neoliberal economic policies that ensured its continued impoverishment.
These foreign policy abuses in Haiti are not mere happenstance. The United States’ policy of “backyard imperialism” intentionally perpetuated destabilization in Haiti in order to preserve institutions – slavery, exploitative economic conditions, and enforced globalization – grounded in anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and a refusal to “forgive Haiti for being Black.”
The testimonials of Haitian nationals themselves narrate that past interventions have directly orchestrated the common precursors of forced migration. This long, troubling history lives on in policies today.
Cloaking Migration Barrier Strategies
The United States too often makes migration policy reflexively, driven by xenophobia and masked as necessary measures to manage perceived emergencies. A more effective response to migration patterns would be to develop immigration initiatives that address the forced movement resulting from years of oppression.
The Biden administration’s reliance on Title 42 of the Public Health & Welfare code is a prime example of exclusionary policies masked as necessities. Title 42, invoked by the Trump administration at the onset of the pandemic, is misinterpreted as allowing the U.S. government to regulate immigration during public health emergencies to prevent the spread of disease by expelling asylum seekers and migrants.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, in an attempt to deny the international and domestic violations posed by Title 42, maintains that the Biden administration has not adopted “the public health imperative” as an immigration measure.
Yet, Title 42 categorically functions as a migration barrier. Since its implementation in April 2020, 60.5 percent of all encounters at the border have led to expulsion. Expelling asylum seekers and migrants violates non-refoulement laws – protection from being forced to return to persecutory or tortious situations – and denies the due process right to claim asylum.
Similarly, under the 2019 Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or the Remain in Mexico policy, the United States forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until they appear before a U.S. court for their hearing. Throughout the implementation of the policy, migrants have risked or suffered rape, kidnapping, violent assaults, and death while being subjected to MPP.
Despite the Biden administration’s early attempt to terminate the policy, on Dec. 6, 2021, the Department of Homeland Security reinstated MPP under court order. Since then, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s rejection of the Biden administration’s termination of MPP.
The Biden administration has avoided assuming responsibility for MPP’s continuation, citing that judicial injunctions oblige its reinstatement. U.S. officials claim that negotiations with Mexico have resulted in a reformed MPP meant to honor the rights and human dignity of migrants. A misguided belief. The early days of reinstatement have been marked by continued grave danger and affronts to the dignity of migrants – the inevitable result of a policy grounded in denying the fundamental rights of vulnerable communities.
At their core, both Title 42 and MPP are inhumane immigration policies rooted in white supremacy.
Deliberate Exclusion of Haitian Migrants
At the United States’ southern border, the xenophobic and militarized realities of MPP and Title 42 have had grave consequences for Haitian nationals – a population that has suffered a long history of contempt and anti-Blackness.
When faced with the migration of thousands of Haitians to Del Rio, Texas in September 2021, the Department of Homeland Security dispatched hundreds of agents in its militarized response. The international community was stunned by the images of Customs and Border Patrol agents on horses, at least some beating migrants with the reins, evoking one the most genocidal and racially violent eras of the Black experience. These acts of racism and militarism went hand-in-hand with the government’s expulsion of Haitians seeking refuge under Title 42.
Since September, the United States has enacted the forced removal of more than 10,000 Haitian nationals under Title 42. In acts of violence, the government has sent at-risk Haitians back to the same country the administration designated in early August as unsafe for return because of humanitarian insecurity and violence.
The administration’s expansion of MPP to the entire Western Hemisphere – Brazilians, Haitians, and Jamaicans were excluded from the policy in its first iteration – has only bolstered the United States’ resistance to Haitian migration. The United States expands this policy in disregard for the discrimination, abuse, and violence Haitians face in Mexico by Mexican officials and other parties.
The Biden administration should be prioritizing stability in Haiti. Instead, the United States’ migration policies worsen Haiti’s political, economic, and environmental catastrophes – a point former Special Envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, articulated in his resignation this September.
The United States has purposefully rejected migration policies that could provide recourse for Haitian asylum seekers and migrants. Instead, the Biden administration has continued Title 42 and broadened MPP. It is time for the United States to abandon these atrocities.
The United States Should Develop Redemptive Migration Policies
The United States’ migration policies need to shift from a supremacy paradigm. This reform must involve a reevaluation of the imperialist and militarist strategies that have historically weakened the Global South and driven migration patterns.
Moreover, the structure of redemptive migration policies must account for the specific imprints of imperialism. In the case of Haiti, the United States’ legacy of racist and xenophobic practices requires a proportionately redemptive migration policy.
There are clear, equitable responses that the United States could adopt immediately to advance redemptive migration policies, particularly for Haitian nationals:
- Uphold access to asylum protections;
- Halt repatriation flights to Haiti;
- Extend entry protections, such as Deferred Enforced Departure, Temporary Protected Status, or humanitarian parole to Haitian nationals;
- Terminate MPP and Title 42; and
- Hold accountable agents of the federal government who exercise cruel, racist enforcement.
As nations like the United States issue International Migrants Day statements, lauding their commitments to migrant communities, they must acknowledge their responsibility to create conscionable migration policies.