By Guest Contributors Emma S. McDonnell* and So Yeon Kim**

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University, explains “History is alive. Images move like wildfire.” That’s why it was no surprise when violent and graphic images showing the treatment of Haitian migrants by the United States Border Control surfaced, they were met with global outcry. These photographs are placed within the context of arbitrary policy, inhumane treatment, and unsuitable camps, as well as a history of ambivalence in relation to forced migration. In other words, a humanitarian disaster.

The situation at the border is a reflection of arbitrary and ambiguous policy-making. The Biden Administration has reversed policies and directives from the former administration, but has left some of the Trump administration’s shameful policies in place, such as Title 42. Only ending Title 42 can enable a more fluid asylum process. Without an end to Title 42, the policy will continue to be dominated by bureaucratic chaos and will further legitimize state-led human rights violations.

Until recent developments, the Biden administration was currently enforcing Title 42, legislation that was enforced under the Trump administration. This legislation is not a recent development, but rather has its origins in 1893. Title 42 is a double-edged sword. Its implementation has been justified by a need to maintain public health and prevent the spread of Covid-19 in detention camps but has been criticized by academics and advocacy groups as a migration deterrent, even leading to the resignation of U.S. Special Envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote. On Friday, March 11th, the administration announced that it was ending this policy in relation to unaccompanied minors. This decision comes following a court ruling in Texas which would have had minors expelled by officials, without conducting an asylum screening. Although this announcement is a move in the right direction, the only humanitarian solution is an end to Title 42 for all individuals, regardless of age. 

With the inauguration of Joe Biden came the lessening of the draconian immigration policies of the Trump era. This prompted an increase in migration across the southern border. Guerline M. Jozef of Haitian Bridge Alliance summarizes this best when he says, “False information, misinformation, and misunderstanding might have created a false sense of hope.” One of the dominant means of communication in mobilizing and providing instructions on border crossing to these migrants was social media. This information can result in hearsay, creating a disconnect between fact and fiction. This in combination with the Biden Administration’s policy reversals — lifting of travel bans from several Muslim-majority countries and discontinuing of zero-tolerance family separation policy — created chaos. Some policy changes led to a surge in arrivals at the US Southern border in the hope that the right of asylum would be upheld, yet these individuals were only met with the remnants of restrictive policies.

After a treacherous journey through the jungle area between Colombia and Panama and up to the US Southern border, the migrants are faced with destitute situations in makeshift camps and inhumane mistreatments by border patrol agents. White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the images of agents mounted on horses, herding the migrants like animals, as “horrific.” While calling such abuse of migrants “unacceptable,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas vowed to continue deportations of asylum seekers under Title 42, claiming that these migrants came to the United States illegally.

There are two tracks of exemption from Title 42. The first, under the guidance of the American Civil Liberties Union, permits 35 families each day, while the second concerns 250 “vulnerable” individuals each day. But, this is not a permanent system, and defining who is “vulnerable” is seemingly subjective. The diverging fates of the two Haitian families emphasize the subjective classification of those deemed “vulnerable” and granted exemption from Title 42. Scholar Katy Long has argued that differentiation of the ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ labels is arbitrary and called for policymakers and academics to reflect on the broader implications that such classification has on the larger migration process.

Both the Sajous and the Renois families migrated to other countries in South America for new lives. The changed situations in the countries to which they had migrated forced them to make a horrendous journey across a dozen countries to seek asylum in the United States. When they reached the makeshift camp under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas in September, the Renois family was deported to Haiti, a country in which they had not lived for years and that is currently suffering political crises, violence and natural disaster.  Meanwhile, the Sajous family was released to be reunited with their relatives in Florida. In both cases, neither of the families had chances to explain why they feared being sent back to Haiti nor why they were seeking asylum in the United States.

The continued securitization of the border fails to respond to the changing nature and reality of migration. The number of Haitians attempting to cross the border swelled after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck the country in August as it was already in political turmoil from the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. While the earthquake was not directly affected by climate change, the destruction caused by the climate-fueled disaster has forced people to move.  Alex de Sherbinin, a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network, argued that climate change is a “risk multiplier” with other migration pressures.

Furthermore, Haitian refugees are examples of de facto refugees. The term is coined by Patrick Kingsley, former foreign correspondent to the Guardian, in his book The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. They initially migrated to other parts of South America for economic reasons. However, political unrest and persecutions they suffered from those countries forced them to flee to the United States to seek asylum. Yet, they are being denied their right to seek asylum and arbitrarily selected to be deported to Haiti.

The reasons for seeking asylum have become intermingled and complex, and that arbitrary deportations and expulsions are not a durable solution to the situation. More refugees with complicated grounds for seeking asylum will continue to arrive at the U.S.’ front door to find protection, security, and hope. To prevent further failure, the Biden administration must end Title 42, and come up with reasoned, clear, and humane guidelines and policies to effectively maintain the public humanitarian order for all individuals.

*Emma McDonnell is an M.A. student in the European History, Politics, and Society program at Columbia University. Having worked for a number of international publications, her work and research concern the German media, culture, and migration. 

**So Yeon Kim is the current Human Rights Studies M.A. student at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Previously, she worked for UNHCR Korea Office, Refuge pNan, and Advocates for Public Interest Law to advocate for the rights of refugees in South Korea.

Photo Credit: AP News

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