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Commentary: US expulsion of Haitian asylum seekers a ‘moral failure’

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Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced last week that 13,000 Haitian asylum seekers have been conditionally permitted to enter the United States, and 3,000 are in detention.

The entry news is welcome, but ongoing detention of thousands of asylum seekers and other recent treatment of Haitians by the government are not acceptable. We watched with great disappointment and indignation as the U.S. government, which purports to put human rights first in its foreign policy, made the inhumane and counterproductive decision to expel thousands more Haitian asylum seekers last month.

They were returned to a place where violence is endemic and a recent earthquake took the lives of more than 2,500 people and left thousands of homes and businesses in ruins.

While there appears to be no political consequences for the Biden administration, save for a stern statement from the head of the UN Refugee Agency, the moral failure is clear. Under U.S. law, people who are physically present in the United States or who arrive in the United States (no matter how they arrive) may request asylum and should be given the chance to make the case that they have a credible fear of persecution or fear for their lives if they return to their country of origin.

The Haitians who had gathered in Del Rio, Texas, asked for nothing more than an opportunity to realize their right to request protection in the United States. Yet many were expelled by the United States back to Haiti, where gangs pose a constant threat that the government is unwilling or unable to address. 

The international community and the United States well know the conditions people face in Haiti. Yes, Haiti is a poor country, but more than this: It is a failed state. Unemployment is the norm, and corruption rules in places of power. More than 4 million people face starvation. Family members are kidnapped and held hostage by armed gangs, and the government is unable to stop the violence. This past summer, political violence boiled over into a destabilizing assassination, opening a crater where sound political leadership should be. Now, as the U.S. deports asylum seekers to Haiti, many are unable to return to their places of origin because so much of the capital is controlled by gangs. Others have nowhere to go because of the damage from the earthquake.

And for the past 50 years or so, the U.S. government has done little to support good governance and refused to help stop the proliferation of gang violence and the spread of corruption in Haiti.

Instead, the United States, a nation that promotes science, is abusing public health policy by enforcing Title 42 and using the global pandemic as an excuse to ignore its obligations to asylum seekers, including thousands of Haitians, turning them away to face dangerous conditions in Mexico and Haiti. Epidemiologists and public health experts across the U.S have opposed Title 42 as a public health measure and urged the Biden administration to restart asylum. Even American federal courts have found these expulsions to be illegal.

This wave of Haitian asylum seekers will not end as long as the country continues to suffer from gang rule, violence and the irresponsibility of its elites. The opportunity to seek asylum is a human right that shouldn’t be denied. These facts cannot be wished way, rounded up with horses or put on a plane to another place. The United States and its leaders can pretend that after 50 years of failed aid it doesn’t understand the threats Haitians face, but not without risking their humanity.

Fr. Jean Denis Saint-Félix SJ is the Jesuit Superior of Haiti. Joan Rosenhuaer is the executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

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