Hearing before the U.S Commission on Civil Rights
On the Treatment of Haitian Asylum Seekers in South Florida
June 21, 2002
Jean-Robert Lafortune, MS
Chairperson, Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition
Good morning, Commissioners. As Chairman of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, I appreciate the opportunity to present to you the Haitian Community’s concerns regarding the treatment of Haitian Asylum Seekers in South Florida. The current detention policy targeting Haitian Nationals and effectively denies them a fair chance to pursue asylum in the United States, is unfortunately only the latest manifestation of our government’s long, disgraceful history of discrimination against Haitian Refugees. Indeed, despite the well-documented political repression and turmoil that have characterized life in Haiti for the past decades, refugees from Haiti have been singled out in the United States for special discriminatory treatment and the fundamental principles of refugee protection abandoned time and again.
The two-tier policy, one for Haitians and one for everybody else is not new in U.S Government history vis-à-vis Haitian Nationals. Unfair treatment of Haitian Nationals go as far back to 1779 where African slaves from Saint Domingue (Haiti) volunteered their service General Lafayette to help the 13 States push out the British threat. The strategic battle which took place in Savannah Georgia in August 1779, marked the end of the British outpost in North America. To pay tribute to those brave soldiers, today the Mayor of Savannah and Haitian-Americans in South Florida are working together to erect a monument on their memory.
On August 22nd, 1791 on the eve of the bloody general insurrection of Haitian Slaves against French Slave-owners in Saint-Domingue, President George Washington was very quick to alert Napoleon Bonaparte on the need to quell the Slave Rebellion in Haiti. He directed his Treasurer and Defense Secretary to give money, weapons and ammunitions to quell the Haitian Revolution.
In 1802, while the U.S while was still at its infancy as a nation, President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S Congress to enact legislations to ban from the U.S mainland all African Slaves who had witnessed the Haitian Revolution or who had made a stop-over Haiti.
In 1804, President Jefferson introduced in the U.S Congress a legislation to impose an economic embargo on Haiti. In 1806, that embargo became effective to set the stage for 200 years of a policy and politics of isolation, and economic strangulation vis-à-vis Haiti. After its independence, Haiti was very quick to spread its emancipation movement throughout Latin America by helping countries such as Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela gain their independence from Spain. While the U.S will recognize these newly liberated nations but Haiti has had to wait 1863 to have its independence recognized by the U.S Government. Haiti’s biggest gift to America is the acquisition of the Louisiana Territories when Napoleon decided to sell it to America at about $.04 an acre. With the loss of Haiti, he decided he had no more military use for Louisiana.
In addition to the U.S Congress, states like Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina enacted legislations to ban all slaves or former slaves from Haiti and the Caribbean Basin from their territory. Denmark Vesey, a former Haitian who witnessed the Haitian Revolution, organized a bloody slave rebellion in Charleston South Carolina.
In 1915, the U.S Occupation of Haiti that was designed quell the African values and identity did not succeed and the Marines were forced to abandoned the occupation in 1939. By the way, in 1915, FDR drafted the new Haitian Constitution. Once in Haiti, the American caretakers implemented a policy to take away fertile land from Haitian peasants to give them away to U.S multinational like the McDonald Corporation. About 40,000 Haitian peasants whose land was confiscated were given one way tickets by U.S authorities to travel either to Cuba or Dominican Republic to be used as cheap labor for the exploitation of sugar cane in these countries for the benefice of U.S Corporations. The degradation of the peasant quality of life will have serious impact in the Haitian Society by creating first an internal migration which will be exploited by Haitian politicians upstage one another. The rise of the Duvalier dictatorship and the implementation of a reign of terror to maintain power has naturally created ideal conditions to turn that internal migration into an external migration.
In September 1969 began the first arrival of Haitian Refugees “Boat People” in the Miami River setting the stage for a profound social transformation of South Florida. All the 23 Haitian Refugees on Board were denied political asylum and deported. In December 1972, another boatload of 65 Haitian Refugees came over and due to community outcry, they were allowed to stay. Their boat known as Bato Saint-Sauveur (Saint-Sauveur Boat) will mark a new saga between Haiti and Washington for the next 3 decades whereby U.S Policymakers will entrench themselves behind a simplistic immigration policy establishing that Haitians are fleeing for economical reasons rather than political. Forty years later, Haitian Asylum Seekers today are facing similar summary decisions on their fate based on the race and/or nationality alone despite reports published by Amnesty International, Americas Watch and OAS regarding the steep degradation of Haiti’s political environment.
In the early 1980’s, two major lawsuits were successfully filed on behalf of Haitian Nationals. Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti was filed in July 1980 on behalf of over 4,000 Haitians requesting asylum. The INS, through procedures in effect at that time, had denied all 4,000 applications. The Court found that United States government agencies had set up a “Haitian Program” designed specifically to adjudicate, and to deny, as quickly as possible in whole fashion, the asylum claims of Haitians. The Court concluded that the discriminatory treatment of Haitian nationals was nothing new but rather it was part of a pattern of discrimination which began in the 1960’s. Moreover, the Court found that the INS was engaging in scare tactics, noting that the INS Deputy Commissioner encouraged government attorneys to point out “the dimensions of the Haitian threat” and called the Haitian cases a threat to the community’s social and economic well-being.
Again in a sad repetition of the Government’s discriminatory treatment of Haitians, today’s unjust detention policy is product of the younger Bush’s Administration and echoed a consistent foreign policy deeply embedded in the U.S historical psyche to contain Haitian nationals. A Haitian containment policy based on two centuries of practice has been institutionalized so deeply
into the federal bureaucracies even when the U.S Congress took action by enacting legislations to benefit Haitian nationals, i.e the passage of HRIFA in 1998, the law was so poorly implemented that only very few benefited from it. According to the General Accounting Office April 2002 report, out of 36,300 Haitian Refugees who applied for benefits under HRIFA, only 7,400 actually benefited from that law. In addition to indefinite detention of Haitian Refugees in the mainland, one must be aware as well that in April 2002, the Bush Administration and the Australian Government had put in place a refugee resettlement policy targeting Haitians and Cubans at Guantanamo. The Administration has sent Haitian refugees to Australia which in turn agreed to send in America Indonesian Refugees who are unwanted. A recent communication that I received from Australia indicates that at the next meeting between President Bush and the Australian Prime Minister, an agreement between the two head of states will be signed to swap Haitian refugees in Guantanamo for Iraqi Refugees presently seeking political asylum in Australia.
Even though the discriminatory treatment of Haitian Refugees seems to be a pattern that has been pervasive throughout all U.S Administrations we are convinced that it is so contrary to the ideals this country stands for that it is a practice that can, must and will end. We strongly believe the Government still has an important opportunity to do the right thing and release the Haitian Asylum Seekers.