‘Blatant racism’: Haitian Americans in GA decry migrants’ treatment at border

Roughly 14,000 migrants are expected to be removed to Haiti

As immigration authorities carry out plans to expel thousands of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, back to their homeland, Haitian Americans and Black immigration advocates in Georgia continue to monitor the situation closely, decrying what they perceive to be racist mistreatment from border officials.

Over the course of the week, viral videos and images appear to show U.S. Border Patrol agents confronting Haitian migrants as they attempted to cross the border at the U.S. shoreline of the Rio Grande. At one point, the footage shows an officer’s horse nearly charging into one of the border crossers. Many photos shared widely on social media show agents twirling long reins and swinging them toward migrants.

“A lot of folks are really, really struggling with what we’re seeing. For us, it just shows blatant racism on the part of America and the Biden administration,” said Judith Delus Montgomery, a founding member of the Haitian American Lawyers Association of Georgia. “We’ve never seen any other group of immigrants that have come to the border treated in such a horrible manner. And we’re heartbroken by it.”

The rapid expulsions of Haitian migrants are taking place under the authority of Title 42, a contested Trump-era policy set in place at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which let authorities turn migrants away at the border and deny them the opportunity to start a legal asylum claim. The policy is intended to limit the spread of an infectious disease, but critics say it is being used to effectively seal the border, circumventing migrants’ rights under international and U.S. law to seek asylum.

Last week, a federal judge blocked the Biden administration from continuing to invoke Title 42 to swiftly expel migrant families at the border, but stayed the order for 14 days. The government appealed that ruling Friday.

Mass removals to Haiti are taking place on the heels of a destabilizing presidential assassination in July and a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August, which killed more than 2,000 people. Hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Caribbean nation is seeing poverty and hunger on the rise.

“Haitian Americans in the diaspora, we’ve kind of been watching things unfold in Haiti throughout this year, and it’s been really traumatizing for us,” said Delus Montgomery, who has been practicing immigration law in the metro Atlanta area for 10 years.

‘Our borders are not open’

On Monday, the Department of Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled to Del Rio to warn that repatriations will continue at an accelerated pace, and that plans are in place to send as many as three flights a day to Haiti. Haitian authorities are expecting to receive roughly 14,000 expelled Haitians over the coming three weeks.

“This is not the way to come to the United States,” Mayorkas said. “Irregular migration poses a serious security risk to the migrants themselves; trying to enter the United States illegally is not worth the tragedy, the money or the effort.

“Our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey.”

In his Monday address, Mayorkas said that while DHS has extended humanitarian protection (known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS) to Haitians who had arrived to the United States before July 29, those who cross into the country now are not covered. Delus Montgomery said that misunderstandings about eligibility status for TPS likely motivated Haitians to make the journey to the border.

“I think that that made them feel like, listen, you know, the Haitians in the U.S. have received TPS because things are so bad in Haiti. And so maybe we too can be considered, right?”

She added: “I think they’re looking at that the folks from Afghanistan that were able to come fly here. I mean, we’re talking about several thousands of Afghan immigrants that were able to come to the U.S. and are being granted protection, right? And so the question is, well, if they are, then why aren’t we?”

Delus Montgomery said that the Haitian American Lawyers Association of Georgia is working with Haitian legal groups across the country to send a group of lawyers to Del Rio over the coming days.

In a statement released Wednesday and addressed to President Biden, the leaders of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the NAACP and other Black civil rights organizations said they were “hard-pressed in the year 2021 to find more horrific, traumatizing and blatantly racist images than those coming out of the Del Rio area … Your commitment to racial equity must extend to the treatment of immigrants.”

On Monday, the White House called the images of border officials chasing migrants on horseback “obviously horrific.”

In an interview with the AJC, Lovette Kargbo Thompson, Atlanta organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, said that the treatment of Haitians at the border is indicative of systemic challenges faced by Black people in the U.S. immigration system.

“The historical racism and discrimination directed at Black people in America can exacerbate the difficulties that Black immigrants and Black asylum seekers face,” she said.

“Our call to action at this time is to ask that the Biden administration grant humanitarian parole to Black asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and to stop all expulsions and deportations ... It’s very disheartening to see people just not being treated with the human dignity and respect that they deserve.”

‘I feel for my people’

Until recently, the possibility of being deported back to Haiti filled Rony Maurival with dread. The Haitian immigrant says he came very close to being sent back to his home country — which he left in 1991 as a teenager to come to the U.S. — during the roughly 20 months he spent in immigrant detention in Georgia.

Following public pressure from Georgia immigration advocates, Maurival was released from custody at the beginning of September.

“In Haiti you have a country that is destabilized. You have a country that suffered a major earthquake and a storm. In Haiti you have gangs running rampant,” he said from Florida, where he joined relatives after leaving ICE detention in Georgia. “The U.S. is the only country that I know.”

Like Maurival, many of the Haitian migrants arriving at the border left their country years ago, and no longer consider it home. Many fled after the 2010 hurricane and settled in countries across South America.

“How in the world can someone make a life in Haiti? It is impossible. Especially for someone like me, how can you expect me to go to Haiti and survive? I feel for my people,” he said. “… They don’t get the same treatment that everyone else gets.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.