By Julia Neusner, Human Rights First, Sept. 22, 2022
It’s now been a year since the U.S. government launched its “comprehensive strategy” in September 2021, resulting in the mass expulsion of Haitian people who arrived at the U.S. border in Del Rio, Texas, seeking asylum protection.
Following human rights crisis in Del Rio, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used the Title 42 policy to expel tens of thousands of Haitian men, women, and children, often in shackles, on flights back to devastating violence and instability in Haiti without providing access to the U.S. asylum system—a blatant violation of refugee protection obligations under U.S. and international law. The U.S. government spent millions of dollars to carry out these Title 42 expulsion flights that singled out Haitians for illegal and inhumane treatment—yet another episode in a long history of discriminatory U.S. mistreatment of Haitian refugees.
The Biden administration set the Title 42 policy to end in May 2022, but it remains in place today under court order after litigation by state attorneys general to block the termination. In recent months, DHS began to process some vulnerable asylum seekers—including Haitians—at ports of entry through humanitarian exceptions under the Title 42 order.
But the harms Title 42 has caused Haitians—and other asylum seekers—continue.
This past year I interviewed many Haitian asylum seekers in Tijuana, most recently earlier this month. On some visits, I accompanied staff from the nonprofit organization Haitian Bridge Alliance, including Jeef Nelson who translated interviews in Haitian Creole, during their visits to local migrant shelters.
The Haitian individuals and families I interviewed often described horrific violence.
Most said they intend to seek U.S. asylum after fleeing violence or threats in Haiti. This includes a man whose wife was brutally stabbed by gangs with political ties, a young Haitian man and his wife who faced death threats by an opposition political leader for the man’s support of his brother’s political campaign, a man who escaped an assassination attempt at a political demonstration, and a man who fled Haiti after being shot at by an organized criminal group that was hired to kill him.
Some asylum seekers told me that after they were expelled under Title 42 they faced appalling treatment in U.S. custody and on expulsion flights to Haiti where they were forced to almost immediately flee again. They and other asylum seekers remain blocked in Mexico for months, or years, hoping to obtain limited Title 42 exceptions after enduring extreme danger to reach the border and suffering near-daily discrimination and racist violence while stranded in Mexico.
Expelled to extreme violence and political turmoil
People expelled to Haiti faced extreme violence and institutions ill-equipped to provide for their basic needs. Last year, the U.S. government found conditions in Haiti to be so dangerous that Haitians without legal status in the United States were granted Temporary Protected Status. Haiti’s president was assassinated in July of last year, and in early January 2022, the Haitian Prime Minister was forced to flee an assassination attempt.
The U.S. Department of State continues to classify Haiti as a Level Four security risk advising U.S. citizens not to travel to Haiti “due to kidnapping, crime, and civil unrest,” noting “violent crime, such as armed robbery and carjacking, is common” and “protests, demonstrations, tire burning, and roadblocks are frequent, unpredictable, and can turn violent.” Gang violence is common and often tied to political turmoil.
Some Haitian asylum seekers I interviewed faced life-threatening violence after the U.S. government expelled them as the security situation in Haiti continued to deteriorate. For instance, a couple who fled death threats by an opposition political leader were again threatened after DHS expelled them to Haiti in December 2021. They were forced to flee the country again. A Haitian man that fled violence was robbed shortly after DHS expelled him to Haiti in December 2021. The armed men stole the family’s luggage and identity documents. He immediately fled Haiti again, terrified for his life. “When people learn you just came from the United States, you’re a target,” he said. Another Haitian family said they were robbed at gunpoint almost immediately after their expulsion flight from the United States landed. They fled the country again and remained in a Tijuana shelter as of September 2022.
Racist abuse by U.S. immigration officers during expulsions
DHS detained many of those expelled to Haiti for days in awful conditions in the United States prior to expulsion, undercutting claims that people are expelled to protect public health. Most Haitians I interviewed were detained for days with only a foil blanket to keep warm in holding cells that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deliberately kept cold. Some said that for days they were given only cold burritos to eat. All reported that they were unable to bathe, brush their teeth, or change their clothes during the time they were detained.
One family was detained for 20 days before being expelled to Haiti earlier this year. After crossing the border near Calexico, California in February 2022, the family spent eight days detained in a cold cell. CBP seized their clothing and belongings, leaving the family members wearing only their bottom layer of clothing (a T-shirt). DHS then flew them to another DHS facility in Texas, where the family was held for 12 more days. The woman begged officers for warmer clothes or a blanket for her sick and shivering two-year-old daughter, but they refused. The girl was so distraught she was unable to eat.
On expulsion flights to Haiti, DHS officers have returned people shackled at the hands and waist without providing information about where they were being taken. A Haitian man said he was “bound with chains,” which he described as “humiliating and inhumane.” One mother said she was unable to comfort her crying child during the flight while shackled. Another mother could not attend to the needs of her infant because her hands had been bound. In many cases, U.S. immigration officers refused to tell those being expelled where they were being taken and sometimes lied that flights were destined for elsewhere in the United States. A young Haitian man fleeing targeted threats for his political activity, who was expelled in December 2021, said he tried to ask for asylum, but U.S. officers ignored him. “Nobody explained anything,” he said. “We didn’t know what was happening until the plane was landing in Haiti.”
Danger, uncertainty while stranded in Mexico
Violent attacks against Haitian asylum seekers in Mexico are common. For instance, in summer 2022, a Haitian asylum seeker who had returned to the U.S.-Mexico border after being expelled to Haiti was robbed at gunpoint on his way to work by men who forced him to strip and searched his body for money. Another Haitian man who fled death threats in Haiti was attacked with a bat in February 2022 outside the Tijuana shelter where he had been staying with his teenage daughter. He said that people in the streets in Tijuana made racist remarks, calling them “monkeys” and telling them to go back to their country. Another Haitian man was robbed at gunpoint in February 2022. At least two Haitians have been murdered in Tijuana this year.
Haitians stranded in Mexico face anti-Black discrimination at hospitals and many have been turned away from care. Some have died. In March 2022, Haitian Bridge Alliance arranged a funeral service for a teenage Haitian girl who died after a Tijuana public hospital initially refused to treat her severe stomach pain. A hospital staff member claimed (likely falsely) that the facility was only treating COVID-19 cases. The girl’s devastated father explained that the hospital admitted the girl the following day only when she returned with a legal advocate, but by that time, her condition had severely worsened. The father was forbidden from entering the hospital or seeing his daughter during the four days she was admitted. Doctors determined that the girl needed surgery but told the father he would need to collect burdensome documentation before they could treat her. After he managed to collect the documents promptly, hospital staff instructed him, without explanation, to purchase deodorant, perfume, and soap for his daughter. When he arrived with the requested items, hospital staff informed the girl’s father that she had died, providing only a death certificate with no record of treatment. The father told me, “every time a Haitian goes to that hospital, they don’t come back.”
This was just one of at least 12 funeral services Haitian Bridge Alliance arranged and funded between December 2021 and June 2022 for Haitian and other Black asylum seekers and migrants who died while stranded in Mexico due to violent crime and the frequent inaccessibility of life-sustaining medical care and other vital assistance. In May 2022, the organization also held a funeral for Calory Archange, a 30-year-old Haitian man who died of a heart attack in Tijuana after having received inadequate medical care.
Without access to hospitals, nonprofit organizations try to fill the gaps. The nonprofit organization Refugee Health Alliance provides free medical services to migrants and asylum seekers at its Tijuana facility and in pop-up clinics at shelters. In late March 2022, a Refugee Health Alliance clinic at a makeshift tent shelter for more than 150 Haitian migrants and asylum seekers provided care to individuals seeking treatment for medical and mental health issues including insomnia, chronic pain, and injuries arising from the traumatic events they had experienced in Haiti, Mexico and in the journey to the border.
Many Haitians stranded in Mexico face workplace exploitation and discrimination as they take whatever work they can (often strenuous factory jobs) to support themselves while waiting for exceptions to the Title 42 policy. Some reported that employers stole their wages or underpaid them. One Haitian couple said that their supervisors at a television factory assign them the most difficult and unpleasant tasks and described a coworker making gestures to other workers suggesting that the man smelled bad. This specific couple was stranded in Tijuana and forced to find work after being deported to Haiti, where gang members stabbed the wife, forcing them to flee.
Employers often refuse to pay the medical costs for stranded asylum seekers injured at work. In Tijuana, Haitian Bridge Alliance had to cover the medical costs of a Haitian man whose fingers were severed while harvesting cactus. A pregnant woman also lost her baby in March 2022 while working a 10-hour, physically demanding factory shift. She had described severe pain and bleeding at work, several days later, a Refugee Health Alliance doctor conducted an ultrasound which suggested the woman had miscarried.
Facing terror, death to reach the U.S. border
Haitian people endure violent attacks and anti-Black discrimination when heading to the U.S. border, both when it is for a second time, after being expelled under Title 42, as well as for those fleeing to the U.S. for the first time. With highly limited access to visas for air travel, Haitians often have to travel by foot through Mexico and, in many cases, through South America, including the Darien Gap—a notorious 60-mile stretch of jungle connecting Colombia and Panama, where robberies, rapes, and killings are common. Between January and August 2022, Haitians were the second largest group to cross the Darien Gap (after Venezuelans), with 6,359 crossing during that time.
The Haitian individuals and families I interviewed who had crossed the Darien Gap described gruesome violence. A Haitian woman said armed men intercepted her group, forced the woman to strip, aggressively groped her private parts purporting to search for money, and raped her friend. Another said robbers stopped her multiple times, at one point holding a gun to her head and a machete to her throat. An armed group who stole money from the woman and her family shot and killed other members of the group who were unable to pay. “I thought we would all die in that jungle,” the woman told me.
A Ghanaian migrant who had passed through the Darien Gap told me in April 2022 that he suspects Panamanian military work with bandits to rob migrants. He said that in November 2021, a Haitian man who traveled with him was robbed by an armed group in the jungle. Later, he spotted his cell phone, which the robbers had taken, on a table with Panamanian military officers. When the Haitian man asked for his phone back, the officers led him out of sight. The group heard a gunshot and never saw the Haitian man again.
For expelled asylum seekers who must make their way across the Americas to reach the US border for a second time, the Darien Gap presents not just the constant risk of violent attacks, but also a physically grueling and extremely dangerous days-long trek through dense rainforests, steep hills, and swamps where heavy rainfall produces frequent flash floods.
Two Haitian families whom DHS had expelled to Haiti and who had crossed earlier this year said they had to pass through neck-high rivers. One mother told me her two-year-old child almost died from dehydration when the family ran out of water to drink. When they tried to drink from a stream, they encountered a dead body floating in it. Another woman, who carried her infant child, said six Haitian people who had been traveling with her died in the Darien Gap from violent attacks, illness, or injuries, including a pregnant woman who drowned crossing a river. For families who have suffered so much fear and violence to arrive at the border and seek U.S. protection, to then be summarily expelled to Haiti, where they will face further danger, is devastating.
The mass expulsions of Haitians carried out by the U.S. government constitutes a human rights travesty that continues to cause untold suffering, as the stories above demonstrate with horrifying clarity. These expulsions send Haitians back to a country where they are not safe, and from which some must immediately flee again, facing further danger when they do. The violence and discrimination they face in seeking a safe, decent life for themselves and their families stems directly from U.S. policies, in particular Title 42.
The Biden administration should take all available legal steps to end Title 42 for good and restore asylum processing at ports of entry. It must uphold U.S. law and treaty obligations and ensure that Haitian, and other people at the border who are fleeing persecution, can access the U.S. asylum system, as is their right.
Posted Sept. 28, 2022