A couple weeks ago, I flew to Del Rio, a small town in southwestern Texas that borders the Rio Grande and Mexico, for my dissertation fieldwork. I have investigated the Haitian migration through South and Central America towards the United States since 2015, when it started. I went to Texas to examine, through racial lenses, the response to the presence of more than 15,000 Haitians asylum seekers under a bridge, suspended in time and geographical limbo. One of my findings is that the repulsive debate on the deservedness of the right to seek refuge that dominates political agendas and social spaces continues to ignore the intersection of anti-Black sentiment and migration policy — and it deeply concerns me.
The mass arrival of Haitians at the U.S. border is not a novel or isolated phenomenon. Since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, in 2010, killed more than 200,000 people in their country, Haitians have migrated in mass to Brazil and other South American countries. As political instability, economic crises, anti-immigrant sentiment, and hate crimes grew in these countries, Haitians and other migrants have crossed Central and South America to reach the U.S.-Mexico border and request asylum. The assassination of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse this July, another devastating earthquake in August, and the long and damaging interference of foreign countries in Haiti — particularly the U.S — have only augmented Haitians’ need for refuge.
There was no home to return to, and, yet, “sending them back” was what many Americans wanted and what the Department of Homeland Security did. Not a single Haitian migrant remained in Del Rio. The majority were expelled from the U.S. or forced to return to Mexico to await their fate together with thousands of other houseless Haitians. About 7,000 of those asylum seekers were allowed in the country on “humanitarian parole” — which means that the government could expulse them at any moment. The multiple forms of violence we saw — those gut-wrenching images of Border Patrol agents on horseback using reins as whips, terrorizing Black men, women, and children — exposed the violence but will probably not influence the judgment of their asylum requests. After all, that was nothing but another reenactment of colonial times, which does not seem to bother many of us.
On my way back to Santa Barbara, I crossed paths with four young Haitian men at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. They were among those more 15,000 asylum seekers under the bridge in Del Rio. We chatted about migrants’ sorrows, Haitian food, migration policies, and racism. Our time was short, and I ended up leaving without telling them how much I, as a migrant, am moved by their determination to claim autonomy and dignity despite the racial violence historicallyinflicted against Haitian people. I write this open letter to those four asylum seekers I met on this side of the Rio Grande.
Dear Agustin, Joseph, Jean, and Miguest,
I hope you have finally been reunited with your families here in the U.S. I am back at the university, and I told my students of law and migration about you, your stories of resilience, and your dreams. They were touched by them and also enraged — which is the right response. Rage moves us forward and forces us to act.
It has been almost a month, but I am still processing those terrorizing gazes we got while chatting at the Dallas airport. We “people of color” often get them for posing a threat to the “American racial purity.” These racial aggressions no longer make me uncomfortable; I now confront them and the aggressors. I have to say, though, that racism and xenophobia will be part of your experience as Black migrants in this country. Stay strong, stay strong! Oh, and do not forget to remind the White supremacists you will encounter that “we are here because they were there.” Most people will not get it, but it is to educate them about the fact that most migratory movements to this country result from U.S. interventions in the migrants’ home countries.
I am so happy that you got this far on your immigrant journey, and I wish I was more optimistic about what you should expect that the next chapter of your lives will be. But I am not, and it is for a few reasons.
The state violence that you experienced during your petition for asylum has long been known by Haitian migrants. You may be too young to recall the news, but some history books and some of your family members can tell you about other times when the U.S. government imprisoned Haitian men, women, and children in inhumane conditions. You will learn about the confinement of Haitian asylum seekers arriving in Florida in boats in the early ’90s, for example. They were intercepted and sent to the U.S. detention camp in the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to be treated without any respect or dignity. And if you are skeptical that history repeats itself, here is some more pessimistic news: A few weeks ago, it made it to the headlines that the current administration is looking for a new contract to operate this same migrant detention facility — with the prerequisite that guards speak Haitian Creole.
You arrived in the U.S. when anti-immigrant and anti-Black sentiment is tangible. Black people, Asian people, Latinx people are killed because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, their accent — that is, because of their non-whiteness. The racist process of immigrant selection in this country is a political currency with high value and it certainly will influence the judgment of your asylum requests. But I also want you to know that there is a growing grassroots movement inspired by the strength of people like you, demanding change in the migration regime that separates families, cages children, and kills migrants based on race. A strong cross-border network is tirelessly fighting for immigrants’ rights in big and small cities, on the ground or remotely, with or without political support. When governments come up with new forms of oppression, we come up with new forms of resistance. Day after day.
I hope you can find a job soon and get paid enough to make a living here and put food on the table of your loved ones in Haiti. Your history of resistance and revolutions continues to demonstrate that when people try to subjugate us, we resist. When employers try to exploit us, we resist. When governments threaten our rights, we resist. You come from the world’s first Black republic, where resistance is not a choice but the only way to reclaim humanity and independence. Thanks for teaching us here in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave that freedom is more than a noun.
Amanda Pinheiro is a PhD candidate in Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara and can be contacted at email@example.com. Her research investigates the Haitian migration to Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, and how globalized anti-Black racism has shaped Haitians’ border-crossing experiences. Pinheiro is a migrant from Brazil, and her passion for migration studies and racial justice comes from her own struggles as a migrant in the U.S.