Welcoming Afghan Refugees While Excluding Black Haitians: The Racial Hypocrisy of Democrats

“Everybody knows that there is absolutely no difference between the native African and the American and West Indian Negroes, in that we are descendants from one common stock…. I know no national boundary where the negro is concerned. The whole world is my province until Africa is free.” -Marcus Mosiah Garvey

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq 

These words by the legendary Black liberator Marcus Mosiah Garvey were delivered nearly a century ago in New York, in 1922 and 1923. They echo the words of today by Notable Black New York Times Columnist Charles Blow, who stated just days ago in 2021 that “When I see those Black bodies at the border, I am unable to separate them from myself, or my family, or my friends. They are us. There is a collective consciousness of Blackness, born in the white supremacist erasure of our individuality.” 

This “collective consciousness of Blackness” was a shared sentiment between these two men nearly one century apart. And as a Black woman, it is something I feel as well when I reflect on the shameful and inhumane treatment at the southern border of my Black brothers and sisters from Haiti.

The political response to the ongoing Haitian refugee crisis has been appalling, to say the least, and, in my opinion, a racist double standard, at worst. Sadly, however, it is not a surprise given the racist history of the United States’ treatment of its own Black citizens, which was on full display for the world to see with the 2020 public execution of a Black man named George Floyd, whose last breath was mercilessly taken from him by the force of a Minneapolis white police officer’s knee on his neck for his last 8 minutes and 46 seconds of life. 

The roots of racism and law enforcement in this country were on display once again at the southern border in the past few weeks, as we saw despicable images of white border patrol officers on horseback using reins as whips against Black Haitian migrants, a chilling recollection to the slave patrols of the 1800s rounding up escaped slaves to return them to their masters. Except this is the year 2021, over 150 years after the outlawing of slavery in this country. Yet here we are, in real time, still seeing Black people being chased by white law enforcement on horseback, using reins as whips, to send them back to where they belong.

The cruel irony of it all is that this is happening under a Democratic President Joe Biden, one who explicitly thanked African Americans across the nation for carrying him to victory not even one year ago. The outcries of an unjust immigration system under former president, Republican Donald Trump, were justifiably loud and clear, and intense legal battles were fought to undo his hardline immigration policies throughout his presidency.

From the cold-hearted images of the kids in cages at the Mexican border to the blatantly discriminatory Muslim ban, pro-immigration lawyers and activists had their hands full in federal court challenging such inhumane policies , while Democratic politicians had a field day denouncing the malice of the Trump administration in their efforts to regain the White House and Congressional power.

Yet now that Biden, whose election that toppled Trump brought a seemingly new era of tolerance to the country, is engaging in the same inhumane immigration tactics and policies, there is an embarrassing silence in the political arena. Democrats often fashion themselves as the champions of civil and human rights in this country. Joe Biden himself thanked profusely, the African Americans of this country during his election victory speech, stating outrightly that he would have our backs because we had his in carrying him to victory. But of course, the tone changes once the individual crosses over from candidate to elected official.

In my opinion, just and equitable paths to citizenship and eradicating racism are not partisan issues, but issues of human decency and dignity. A basic fundamental of every human right to respect, and every elected official, regardless of party, should uphold every individual’s rights and respect based on their basic human essence.

In this respect, Joe Biden and the entire Democratic Party cannot hide from the blatant mistreatment of Black Haitian refugees at the southern border. The photos that circulated throughout the world showing America’s ugly face of racism did not end with Donald Trump, where many may have incorrectly thought it began. And it exposed the fallacy of the Democratic Party as a vanguard for humanity, instead showing it for what it is: an all too often hypocritical political opportunist that cares only about the Black community when it is time to collect their vote into office.

Furthermore, the maltreatment of Haitian migrants signals the deeply rooted racism that is firmly embedded in our national policy and foreign affairs. Two historical inflection points demonstrate this gross inequity perfectly.

Haiti’s Congressman, John Conyers

The first is a comparative review of the late Congressman John Conyers Jr., the longstanding Congressman from Detroit, the nation’s largest majority Black city. Conyers, a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and the only member of Congress ever endorsed by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was a staunch advocate of the civil rights of his Black constituents in Detroit, and also a fierce protector of human rights around the world. Most notably, this included Haiti. Conyers routinely visited Haiti and acted on their behalf in the halls of the United States Congress. While many instances can be cited as an example, I focus on one in particular that sets the stage for what is now happening in our current date and time. 

In a 1998 press release titled, “‘Zero Tolerance’ for Immigration Double Standards”, Conyers made his case for the Haitian Refugees Immigration Fairness Act, which called for permanent resident status adjustment of certain Haitian nationals, their spouses, and children. Conyers explained the need to support such immigration relief for Haitians because the previously enacted Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act enabled Nicaraguans and Cubans to become legal permanent residents and permitted certain unsuccessful Central American and East European asylum applicants to seek another form of immigration relief, yet opted not to include Haitian asylum seekers.

Quickly noticing the double standard in the treatment of Haitian immigrants in comparison to their Central American and European counterparts, Conyers asked the question, “Why should these groups get special treatment?” before defiantly declaring “I am not going to abandon Haiti and I will not allow a duplicitous refugee policy to prevail.” 

This bold and courageous statement explicitly denouncing the immigration double standard of a Black nation is the exact situation we are dealing with once again, bringing me to my second focal point.

Disparate Treatment of Haitian Refugees Compared to Afghan Refugees

While Haitian migrants were met with law enforcement on horseback with horse reins as whips and airplanes quickly gathered to send them back to Haiti, within the same month, Afghan refugees facing similar political turmoil in their nation, were met with airplanes quickly ushering them into the United States and politicians with open arms to welcome their newest potential constituents. 

We should rightfully welcome Afghan refugees as a basic commitment to human rights, but we cannot openly do so while we so blatantly disrespect and deny these same human rights and even basic human decency to our dark skinned, Black brothers and sisters in humanity from Haiti. This is the problem we are facing today, and the response in the news media and glaring contradictions from our elected officials tell the story.

According to a September 15, 2021 article in the Wall Street Journal, “The U.S. evacuated at least 65,000 Afghans, according to numbers provided by the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, “ and at the time, the White House stated that it was expecting to “resettle up to 95,000 Afghans in the U.S., the majority of whom are expected to arrive by the end of September.” 

In stark contrast, a CBS News report on September 27, 2021, reported that in just nine days, from September 19 to September 27, the U.S. expelled nearly 4,000 Haitian migrants, including hundreds of families with children. 

Even the headlines tell a more compassionate and humane story planting empathy for Afghan refugees (Afghan Refugees in the U.S.: How They’re Vetted, Where They’re Going and How to Help), while the Haitian refugee crisis gets reported without sympathy or emotion, but as an obligatory responsibility of the regular news cycle (U.S. Expels Nearly 4,000 Haitians in 9 Days as Part of Deportation Blitz). 

Still, the most disparate treatment of Haitian refugees and Afghan refugees has arguably come from elected officials, most notably in the Democratic Party, starting with the president himself. President Biden raised the refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for fiscal year 2021 and stated that the caps set by his predecessor, Republican former President Donald Trump, did not reflect America’s values as a nation that supports refugees.

However, in the same vein, Biden has used the Trump-era policy Title 42 public health authority to expel Haitians. Such blatant hypocrisy is not only legally questionable, since a federal judge recently blocked the use of the policy, but it is morally abhorrent and seems to be racially discriminatory since no such exclusionary methods were used against Afghan refugees in similarly situated positions.

The Political Preference of Non-Black Refugees

President Biden is not the only prominent Democrat exercising such a grandiose display of hypocrisy against Black refugees from Haiti. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a rising star in the Democratic Party and former front runner for Biden’s vice presidential selection, has quickly assembled a welcome wagon for Afghan refugees to relocate to Michigan. In August, Whitmer announced that the state of Michigan was preparing to welcome Afghan refugee families while awaiting further information from the U.S. Department of State.

Specifically, Whitmer stated, “We have a rich history of multiculturalism — from the Dutch who settled in the West, to the Finns who mined the North, to the Middle-Easterners who made Dearborn a flourishing center for Arab culture, and countless others who make us who we are.”

Whitmer continued, stating that “People from around the world have come to Michigan over centuries for good-paying jobs, a high-quality education for their kids, and the right to live and worship freely.” 

Meanwhile, Governor Whitmer, who proudly touts her selection of Garlin Gilchrist as her running mate to become the first Black lieutenant governor of Michigan as a badge of diversity credibility, has been absolutely silent on the status of welcoming Black Haitian refugees to Michigan. 

Whitmer, who won the governorship in 2018 thanks to Black voters in Detroit, the home of the United States’ most significant champion of Haitian rights, the late Congressman Conyers, has yet to even acknowledge any report of what is happening to Haitian migrants at the Southern border.

While this is not surprising considering her abysmal policy approach to Black communities in Michigan, it is a glaring example of the embarrassing silence of the Democratic apparatus in its response, or lack thereof, to the discriminatory treatment of Haitian migrants. 

In particular, one of the most progressive voices in the current halls of Congress has been U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, an Arab American, who is the direct successor of John Conyers’ 13th Congressional District seat representing Detroit. 

While Conyers was notable for his staunch support of Haiti and the rights of its citizens, he was a well-known humanitarian who routinely stood for the rights of oppressed communities worldwide. Prominent examples include his giant contributions in the effort to abolish apartheid in South Africa including the release of Nelson Mandela, and he proposed legislation condemning religious intolerance and emphasizing Islam as needing special protection from acts of violence, and was positively rated by the Arab American Institute, indicating a pro-Arab and pro-Palestine voting record.   

As Conyers demonstrated an egalitarian approach to honoring the rights of his constituents and those of oppressed communities of color around the globe, the same cannot be said of his successor Tlaib, who boldly confronted President Joe Biden on the issue of Palestinian rights, but has been virtually reticent on the rights of Haitians also suffering inhumane treatment under the Biden administration. In fact, it is her “Squad” colleague, Boston Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, an African American womanwho has instead taken up the mantle of Conyers in defending the rights of Haitians by co-founding the House Haiti Caucus and consistently demanding accountability of the maltreatment of Haitians by the Biden Administration. 

While Tlaib has failed to follow through on Conyers bold and courageous commitment to defend Haiti’s humanity, Pressley courageously proclaimed that “If we are going to say Black lives matter, that has to be more than a hashtag or a statement. It has to be a practice. Haitian lives are Black lives and Black lives matter.” 

Also displaying the egalitarian human rights approach of Conyers, Congresswoman Pressley compassionately reasoned that “We have the capacity. We don’t have to choose between Afghans and Haitians…. It’s not ‘or.’ It’s ‘and.’ This is a humanitarian crisis.” She is absolutely correct, but unfortunately too many colleagues in the democratic party have chosen to favor non-Black refugees over Black refugees. 

One final example is Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, the chief executive of Michigan’s largest county and the second highest ranking Black elected official after Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist. Recently, Evans proudly announced a $20 million housing assistance program in Wayne County, with some of the funding specifically targeting Afghan refugees by allowing up to 350 Afghan refugees to relocate to the county. Evans praised the effort and said of the Afghan refugees “I’m glad to see them come…. They’re a boon to our economy. They come, they work hard and they become a part of our community.”

Evans, who has appeared before The PuLSE Institute in the past, has not announced any such relief for Black Haitian refugees and has remained silent on the entire situation. His silence has been a contradictory shock to Black people in Detroit given the history of his uncle Bishop Albert Cleage, who took on the African name Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. Bishop Cleage, a towering Black racial justice advocate, pushed for a global collective Black consciousness that echoed the works of earlier Black liberation fighters and founded the nationally renowned Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit, a religious institution, which espoused Black liberation theology and self-empowerment during the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. 

PuLSE Institute Forum Upholds Legacy of Conyers’ Support for Haiti and Human Dignity for Black Haitian Migrants

Given the history of Detroit’s representation and influence in Haiti through Congressman Conyers, coupled with the hypocritical silence for relief for Black Haitians contrasted with the warm welcoming of Afghan refugees by Michigan leaders, The PuLSE Institute hosted a national forum to address the crisis and plight of Haitian refugees. 

United States Senator Gary Peters, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, opened the forum by addressing the Institute, explaining that he questioned U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas personally and ensured follow-up with Mayorkas’ current investigation into the actions of law enforcement officials at the border. Senator Peters also conveyed that he convened a hearing to implore what the Biden administration will be doing to hold individuals accountable. 

The principal themes of the event were the demand for accountability by political and governmental actors in the United States, as well as a need to seize on the momentum currently spotlighting the oppressive treatment of Black Haitian migrants by embracing the counternarrative that tells the true history of Haiti and its demonstrative leadership when it comes to Black humanity.

Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a Haitian American professor of sociology at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY), explained the role of Haiti in the history of global Black liberation, noting its legacy as the first Black country to change the dynamic of the world system with its groundbreaking independence from French colonial rule in 1804. 

Dr. Saint Paul, the founding director of the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute, stated that the current momentum for changing policy toward Haiti will depend on our behavior and that in particular, promoting the counternarrative on Haiti by uplifting its proud history of standing for Black humanity is the solution to the crisis we are now facing. Dr. Saint Paul astutely described the fragilization of Haiti was largely due to external actors, with complicity and great involvement of the international community, particularly that of the United States. 

However, Dr. Saint Paul reasoned that we are on the right side of history by telling these underrepresented truths and to continue to spotlight Haiti by using our resources to create a collective conscience to resolve our issues.

Brian Concannon, former United Nations human rights officer in Haiti and founder of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, focused on the involvement of the U.S. government in the declination of conditions in Haiti. 

Specifically, Concannon noted that the U.S. government supported a government in Haiti that did not uphold fair elections and instituted poor economic practices, giving Haitian refugees no other choice than to face dangerous conditions in search of a better life in the United States. Further, Concannon noted that as a country, we have made a decision to disregard international and U.S. law with respect to Haitian migrants coming to the southern border, and that as a country, we must acknowledge our role to make that choice a reality.

The forum was far more than just reporting about the latest amount of Haitian refugees that have been expelled out of the country by plane, and it was more than a dry discussion of U.S. foreign policy.

It was an honest dialogue about the bitter reality faced by Black people trying to make a better life for themselves in America, and how historically, this country has used its resources to create further difficulties for Black people, rather than using its vast resources equitably to improve our quality of life. 

What is happening with Haitian migrants at the southern border is the quintessential American policy when dealing with Black people- no respect for their humanity and a denial of rights by any means necessary under the law, irrespective of morality or basic human dignity. And it is a humanitarian injustice by the political establishment, regardless of partisan affiliation. 

Whether silenced by embarrassment or by apathy, elected officials must be held accountable for not only inhumane treatment and shamefully discriminatory policy, but for the underlying racist root cause that allowed Black Haitians to be chased with horse reins as whips on horseback in the year 2021. 

The PuLSE Institute, the Institute for Public Leadership and Social Equity, is proud to lead the charge right here in Detroit, the nation’s largest majority Black city and home of the legendary John Conyers, in telling the truth about Haiti’s gallant history and demanding answers from our elected officials over their disgraceful silence when it comes to Haitian suffering. Like Congressman Conyers, we also will not abandon Haiti. 

Editor’s Note: Attorney Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. A racial justice advocate, Patterson is the author of a forthcoming book on race and the law. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson the editor-in-chief and dean of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org.

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