Silenced at the border

Understanding the plight of Haitian asylum seekers

By Andrea McCaffrey, Illustration by Brian Stauffer February 14, 2022

Illustration that depicts the plight of Haitian asylum seekers on the U.S. border

As a child, Quinnipiac law student Djess Jacques loved to climb his grandmother’s mango tree. From his perch, he could see over the cement wall into the neighbor’s yard where he and his friends would play soccer and hide ‘n’ seek.

He remembers car rides with his uncle on hot winding roads through a landscape dotted with palm trees and lush vegetation. In the nearby city of Port-au-Prince, farmers sold fresh produce from wooden carts and children played in the streets. Whenever Jacques thinks of Haiti, he recalls a sense of family, community and cultural pride.

His is a child’s memory of a country that has since been ravaged by natural disasters, human exploitation, gang violence and political corruption, leading an unprecedented number of Haitians to flee their homeland. Born in the United States, Jacques is a first-generation Haitian who wishes more people could understand the complex history and ordinary lives behind the photos, headlines and false narratives surrounding Haitian asylum seekers.

“I would like people to see the human side of this issue. Behind every photo of a U.S. asylum seeker is a heartbreaking and deeply personal story of why they are here,” said Jacques. “Not many people understand the complexity of the history forcing people to leave their home and make the dangerous journey in search of a better life somewhere else.”

From the horrific images of children in cages to the widely circulated photos of border agents running down refugees crossing the Rio Grande, asylum seekers on the southern border of the U.S. are standing at the crossroads of hope and despair. They arrive seeking safe harbor only to find themselves immersed in a national narrative shaped by politicized issues of border fences, a global pandemic, U.S. child separation policy, Anti-Blackness and colorism in the law, and the declining state of detention facilities at the border.

At Quinnipiac, faculty, staff and students like Jacques are working to elevate the national conversation on immigration policy by focusing on refugee humanitarian rights as the foundation for immigration law.

“What is unique about this current situation involving Haitians at the U.S. border is they are not being granted the opportunity to state their asylum claim in court,” said Jacques, a third-year law student. “Haitians are extrajudicially deported back to a country they haven’t seen in more than 10 years, most since the 2010 earthquake. They took a long, dangerous journey through Mexico on hope alone that they would have an opportunity to be processed. It’s a civil rights issue as well as a civil liberties issue.”

During an immigration court hearing, refugees have an opportunity to plead their case in front of a judge. If refused asylum, they are designated an illegal immigrant and may be asked to either leave the country or face deportation. Government officials argue that Haitians arriving on the U.S. southern border do not qualify as refugees because many had resettled in another country before coming to the U.S. They did not come directly from Haiti.

Quinnipiac Leads Timely Discussion

Jacques, who serves as the president of Quinnipiac’s Black Law Students Association, shared his experience as a first-generation Haitian American during a panel discussion this fall hosted by the university’s Department of Cultural and Global Engagement. Jacques was joined by Daymyen Layne, Quinnipiac’s director of multicultural education and training; Brazen Legal immigration attorney Bianca Jordan; and Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox, associate professor of legal studies. They explored the role of U.S. immigration policies on the world stage.

“This crisis is about the right to be heard. Suppose someone is claiming that they’re being returned to a place that is not safe for their family or that their life is in jeopardy because of personal beliefs. We have a legal process in place to determine the credibility of that fear,” said Gadkar-Wilcox, who also serves as the executive director of the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights. “People are turned away at our border without the due process we pledged to uphold, and our U.S. Constitution prioritizes.”

When looking at the historical context, Gadkar-Wilcox notes that beginning in the 1940s, world governments and organizations have upheld an agreed-upon series of human rights principles. Several of these initiatives were led by the United States, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to both international and U.S. law, if an individual meets the international definition of a “refugee,” they have the right to an official hearing for asylum.

“The crisis deepened when our administration began deporting people back to Haiti before determining whether they had a lawful claim and a well-founded fear of persecution under the United States Refugee Act,” said Gadkar-Wilcox. “As a world leader, we must meet the commitments we helped shape under international law and comply with the procedural protections guaranteed under U.S. law for people who qualify as asylum seekers.” 

With the current situation on the southern U.S. border, the debate continues on whether those arriving to the U.S. from Haiti technically meet the criteria of “asylum seeker” or “immigrant.” For Jacques, the answer is in the historical narrative.

“I don’t think most of these people wanted to leave their homeland and risk traveling thousands of miles to a new country where they don’t know the language. They are fleeing from desperate conditions,” said Jacques. “We are dealing with refugees who are seeking asylum because they don’t feel safe to remain in their own country. It doesn’t matter which route they took or how long it took them to get here. Their home country circumstances qualify them as asylum seekers.”

Shaping a New Narrative

According to Genevieve Quinn, QU visiting assistant professor of political science, persistent misconceptions also continue to drive the public response and increased demand for government action on both sides of the issue. An expert on political polarization, Quinn served as a research analyst for United Nations Women at the UN headquarters in New York prior to joining Quinnipiac in August 2021.

“You hear the word caravan, and the misconception is that we are being overrun. But when we look at the widespread issues at the border, only about 4% of asylum seekers are actually from Haiti,” said Quinn. “It’s a very small population that has gotten a lot of attention because of the circumstances that have brought them to our border.”

Quinn explains that when the Biden administration granted temporary protected status (TPS) in May 2021 to a large Haitian population already in the U.S., it became an international signal that the U.S. had created a new authorization for Haitians. In response, an increased number of Haitian asylum seekers made the long journey to the southern border.

“They saw a signal from the administration and interpreted it in a certain way,” said Quinn. “Unfortunately, the situation generated anger on all sides and essentially gave refugees a false sense of hope for asylum.”

While one side pushes for more open borders, there is another that thinks loosened restrictions for Haitians might generate an influx of migrants that would negatively impact the U.S. economy and strain its welfare programs.

“People worry that we will not be able to maintain the robustness of our economy if we have a lot more people tapping into the system,” said Quinn. “What they don’t understand is that to be able to access government and welfare services, you need a social security number. There is a misconception that everyone who arrives to the U.S. is granted a social security number. In reality, it’s a difficult and lengthy process to obtain one.”

In addition to the various contributing factors driving higher numbers of Haitian migrants, Quinn also notes that since 2016, immigration has become more politicized by Republicans, Democrats and the mainstream media.

“We need to find a way to depolarize this particular issue. It’s the vulnerability of a people and the personal stories they carry that are lost in misconceptions and ignored by political strategy. Raising awareness is probably the most effective way to help change the system and bridge the gap between opinions,” said Quinn. “By sharing the experiences of what these people have gone through, we can approach a resolution in a less divisive way.”

Catalyst for Change

For Jacques, his childhood in Haiti shaped his adult perspective and created a sense of responsibility to advocate for those less fortunate. After law school, he plans to launch a nonprofit organization to support educational scholarships for students in Haiti.

“My future goal is to continue to bring truth to light,” he explained. “I have a stake in the welfare of Haiti. It’s like a second home to me. I care about seeing it improve and become more stable. I believe I have a responsibility to use whatever power and privilege I have in the U.S. to help those in Haiti.”

As someone who has lived the Haitian experience, Jacques hopes to see an increase in community pressure on lawmakers to draft an immigration policy based on human rights, focusing on dignity, equality and due process.

“Moving forward, I hope we can create a more humane response to migrants and refugees on our border,” said Jacques. “The majority of these people are not coming from drug cartels or gangs. They are families, people like you or me, who were forced to flee desperate circumstances. At the minimum, we should hear their story and ensure that Haiti does not become a forgotten crisis, but a positive catalyst for change.”

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