The US owes a debt to Haiti. Experts explain why their shared history led to a migrant crisis on the US's border.

·7 min read
Masked protestor holding up a 'US hands off Haiti!' sign.
Demonstrators outside the US Citizenship and Immigration Service office in Miami on February 20 demand that the Biden administration cease deporting Haitian immigrants. Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images
  • The Biden administration faced backlash for dispersing Haitian migrants at the US-Mexico border.

  • Experts say Haiti's history of foreign interference has shaped perspectives and stunted progress.

  • They estimate France and the US owe Haiti billions in reparations for colonialism and occupation.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

In the past week, nearly 14,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, were found in Del Rio, Texas, seeking asylum following a destructive earthquake and the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

Instead of providing shelter and refuge for the migrants, the US continued to deport Haitians, who have for years been targets of imperialism and xenophobia, in what experts described as history repeating itself.

Related Article Module: The US deported dozens of children without Haitian passports to Haiti, report says

"Anything you have read about Haiti thus far will remind you of an all too common and limited narrative; the first Black Republic is 'the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,'" the artist Gina Athena Ulysse wrote in a 2019 essay for Tikkun.

"What almost none of them will mention is that Haiti also has one of the highest numbers of millionaires per capita in the region," she added.

Haitian scholars spoke with Insider about how assumptions and stereotypes about the island perpetuate limited narratives that can put Haitian migrants at risk.

"Cuba, Haiti, and all others are as complex as the US, Canada, and European countries, and allowing room for these latter to have complexity while expecting uniformity from these islands or island nations are quite uninformed and essentialist," Manoucheka Celeste, an associate professor at the University of Florida, told Insider.

Political interference in Haitian politics shapes global perspectives

Haiti and the United States share an intertwined history as the second-oldest and oldest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

But the US refused to acknowledge Haiti's 1804 independence from France for nearly 60 years, kicking off centuries of military coups and political meddling that devastated the Caribbean nation - from a decades-long US invasion and occupation in 1915 to disastrous aid and relief efforts today.

Experts have estimated that Haiti is owed billions in reparations from France and the US for the impact of colonialism, slavery, and the US's theft of an uninhabited island that Haiti owns.

Celeste, whose book "Race, Gender, and Citizenship in the African Diaspora: Travelling Blackness" details this shared history, added that US imperialism influenced how Haitians are received and treated abroad today.

"Haitian immigrants have been particularly stigmatized, echoing images of Haiti as poor, dangerous, sick, and this impacts how we are received in communities, schools, employment opportunities, and all aspects of everyday life," she said.

The Caribbean island has also been misrepresented through the media, experts said.

A misconception that Nadève Ménard, an author and professor of literature at the École Normale Supérieure of Université d'État d'Haïti, has noticed is that the current political climate is somehow unique.

"What is happening here is very much part of larger global networks," she told Insider. "Aid industries need aid recipients, for example. The sophisticated weapons that gangs here are displaying are being sold by someone."

Ménard added that "many people, Haitians and non-Haitians alike, are benefiting from what is happening here in very concrete ways."

Coverage of climate disasters and corruption worsens anti-Haitian bias

Haitian migrant holding hand of child wearing an American flag, stars-and-stripes, hat.
Haitian migrants at a shelter. Thousands of Haitian migrants recently gathered in makeshift camps at the US-Mexico border. Pedro Pardo/ARP/Getty Images

Celeste's research suggests that even though the Caribbean is an incredibly diverse region racially, ethnically, and linguistically, it makes international or US news only when "bad" or "strange" things happen, like a hurricane or a political crisis.

For example, there was a spike in global news coverage of Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake in 2010, with outlets gaining readers and revenue from a disaster affecting the country.

Experts said it was like clockwork that the media feeds on disaster reporting when it's convenient.

Lillian Guerra, a professor of Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida, said Haiti was seen as a failure whose problems are of its own creation, not of the outside world's, and certainly not the fault of consistently accumulated historical injustices.

"We treat Haiti as a pariah that is undeserving of respect, let alone sovereignty," she concluded.

Following the president's assassination, a rotation of Haitian politicians have wanted to claim power. That insecurity was made worse when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck Haiti's southwest - and that exacerbated the migration crisis at the US's southern border.

Amid the political reshuffles, publications have been quick to point out Haiti's extensive corruption. Scholars call on observers to ask themselves why that is.

"It is problematic to imply that corruption only happens in Haiti or happens here more than elsewhere," Ménard said.

"Nations like to present themselves as paragons of virtue, but often their representatives are very much implicated in the corruption they point to in other places," she added.

On Tuesday afternoon, as images of US Customs and Border Protection agents grabbing Haitian migrants near Del Rio circulated, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said President Joe Biden found the footage "horrific" and "horrible."

Psaki said the administration would launch an investigation to "get to the bottom of what happened."

The Associated Press had reported days earlier that the Biden administration had kept deporting Haitian migrants after the images surfaced, with more flights scheduled.

Advocates say centering Haiti and its diaspora is key to progress

Scholars say the treatment of Haitians is based on racial stereotypes that existed long before this year. They challenged people moved by the recent events in Haiti to learn about Haiti from Haitians.

"The way to counter stereotypes is to go to sources where Haitians are speaking for themselves," the Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat told Insider in an email, encouraging people to listen to Haitian youth and elders.

"We are not a monolith. Haiti is not a monolith. We don't always agree. We have layers. We contain multitudes," she added.

With the dehumanizing visuals of Haitian migrants at the border this week were renewed calls to help Haiti - a common sentiment on the internet.

In 2010, after the earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people, many celebrities could be found organizing concerts and benefits, singing songs, and centering themselves in the cause.

Edwidge Danticat

Danticat encouraged supporters to immerse themselves in Haitian-led cultural initiatives, including reading Haitian writers, listening to Haitian music, and taking in Haitian art and even social media.

Politicians and public figures have used their platforms to take a stance and remind people of the role of international communities in Haiti.

"I think the reason why we're not seeing more help, if I'm going to be frank about it, is because they are Haitian," Sunny Hostin, a cohost of "The View," said on Wednesday.

Following Haiti's traumatic year, many Haitian scholars have called out performative advocacy in the form of emojis, prayers, and hashtags on social media.

Marlene Daut, a professor of African diaspora studies at the University of Virginia, described the public outcry as opportunistic and meaningless, highlighting the role of disaster capitalism on other Caribbean islands, like in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria.

"I think a lot of people, when they do charity, they want it to be easy," she said. "If you really want to do good things for Haitians, then it involves the difficult work of finding out what that would be."

With the diaspora and allies holding North America and Europe accountable, Daut said, it "could be a moment for a reckoning, if we allow it to be, and for it to not get swept under the rug again, and also to not repeat the past."

"We need to remember that these things happened," she said, "because there's a dangerous moment right now in Haiti."

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