By Damilola Banjo
In December 2019, a Haitian father and his three-year-old daughter arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas to claim asylum. Department of Homeland Security agents forcefully separated the young girl from her father against their will, and she was later flown to a transitional foster home in Pennsylvania.
Just a few months after she was forced into the foster home, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents deported her to Haiti, a country she had never set foot in.
The young child was born in Chile, where her father, a barber, fled to in 2007 after gang members burned down his mother’s restaurant in Port-au-Prince and almost killed him, he said. “They shot me in the leg,” he explained. Both the names of the father and daughter have been withheld, along with other sources in this story, to protect their identities.
The father started a relationship with a Haitian woman he met in Chile and their daughter was born in 2016. He was not making enough money to take care of his daughter, even though he had acquired permanent citizen status in Chile and could find a job, he explained, so in December 2019, he decided to seek asylum in the United States. His partner came to the U.S. to ask for asylum a year later.
After presenting himself for asylum at the border, he was detained for four months in ICE detention and then deported under Title 42, a public health code that has been abused by both the Trump and Biden administrations to undo legal protections and facilitate deportations during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“He was running from the killings and kidnappings in his home country, and economic hardship in Chile. I would think he is a good candidate for asylum,” said Debbie, 56, the foster parent in whose care his daughter was placed while he was held in detention. Debbie’s foster care agreement bars her from speaking about her client to the press, but she wanted the story to get out, she said.
When President Biden took office in January 2021, many Haitian asylum seekers hoped their situations would change for the better.
The opposite has happened. Biden has kept Title 42 restrictions in place and more Haitians have been removed from the U.S since he took office than in all of Fiscal Year 2020 under Trump, according to the Invisible Wall, a report produced by immigration advocacy groups Haitian Bridge Alliance, Quixote Centre and UndocuBlack Network.
“In the year since the Title 42 policy was implemented, over one-third (38%) of all removal flights to Haiti have happened on President Biden’s watch,” the report claimed. The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, has also taken note of the increasing deportations, posting a tweet that Biden doesn’t want Haitians to come to the U.S.
Biden also broke campaign promises to raise refugee admissions to 125,000 new people per year. He initially tried to maintain the Trump administration’s historically low cap at 15,000, but after outcry from immigration advocates who said the cap was racist, the Biden administration raised the number to 62,500.
Immigration advocates have also argued that the sharp spike in the deportation of Haitians is against the tenet of the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) that immigrants from the Caribbean country enjoy in the U.S. TPS is given to countries with humanitarian crisis, war, or inability of the country to care for its returning citizens.
With the growing crisis in Haiti, the Biden administration has been heavily criticized for deporting Haitians back to a troubled country. Advocates continue to call for the extension of the TPS beyond October 4, 2021 expiration set by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Department of Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently announced he was reviewing TPS protections for Haiti, Cameroon, and Mauritania.
Haiti is not safe and still reeling from the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. In recent years, there has been a surge in killings and kidnappings for ransom. Although there isn’t nationwide data on kidnappings, Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s oldest newspaper, estimated that at least 160 people were kidnapped every month in 2020. That’s a rate of five people per day, with signs that those numbers are only increasing.
The crime has largely been fueled by poverty, 14.5 percent unemployment, and systematic repression that has been in place since the country’s founding as the first Black republic after it
“It makes no sense to deport people there because of all these instabilities,” said Lovely Pierre, a coordinator at Beraca Community Development Corporation, a Haitian charity in Brooklyn said.
Pierre’s work puts her in contact with many undocumented Haitians who live in fear of deportation, she said, including those with children born in the United States. One immigrant mother has continued to keep her sick U.S.-born, 9-year-old son at home because she fears getting deported, said Pierre.
Rose, 32, survived the 2010 earthquake. While first responders were still searching through the rubble for bodies, she fled to the Dominican Republic where she stayed for four years, returning to Haiti for a few months, before finally crossing the border to the U.S. in 2015.
Rose currently lives in Brooklyn, where she’s a student at Nyack College, a private Christian university. She constantly worries about the safety of her parents and siblings she left behind in Haiti, but fears for her own future as an undocumented Haitian living in the U.S.
“For someone who has spent seven years in this country, taking myself as an example, getting plucked from the street and deported is evil and meanest thing anyone could do,” said Rose.
The barber is back in Haiti with his daughter, struggling to keep her safe and earn a living. A few weeks ago, he was stabbed in the arm by muggers who stole the propane tank he uses for cooking, said Debbie, who has kept in touch with him and the child, hoping to help them get back to the U.S. safely and legally.
The daughters’ knowledge of English puts them at greater risk of kidnapping, the father said. Debbie is uncertain that she will be able to help get them back into the U.S. but said she would keep trying.
“For people from countries like Haiti, there is no legal pathway into the U.S. Asylum is really all they have and it is not often granted,” she said.