United States Border Patrol agents on horseback try to stop Haitian migrants from entering an encampment on the banks of the Río Grande near the Acuña Del Río International Bridge in Del Río, Texas on Sept. 19. Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images
While the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP26, has recently concluded, little progress has been made to address the extreme environmental vulnerabilities of low-lying islands, like Haiti. Extreme climate events, including earthquakes, have a larger impact on low- and middle- income countries (LMICs), mostly with Black and Brown populations, around the globe.[i] The impact of extreme climate events on LMICs is multifaceted. While some regions, especially small island developing states (SIDS), are uniquely vulnerable to climate change and extreme events, others have limited resources and infrastructure that make coping with climate events challenging.
Environmental Fragility of Haiti
Haiti, a majorly deforested island with a low-lying coastline and a geographic location on a fault line between tectonic plates, is extremely vulnerable to a changing climate. The Haitian economy relies heavily on agriculture, which is impacted by evolving rainfall patterns, rises in sea level, and exposure to hurricanes and earthquakes.[ii] Climate change aggravates Haiti’s already variable rainfall patterns and subsequent flooding and mudslides, and the rising sea level will lead to coastal erosion and degradation across the island.[iii] Challenges with agricultural production, which are exacerbated by climate change, are interlinked with food insecurity across the country.[iv]
When an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 took place in Haiti on August 14, 2021, the already food-scarce, environmentally stressed island, with limited resources and capacity to respond, was devastated. The August 14 earthquake was the deadliest natural disaster of 2021, causing 2,248 deaths and leaving 650,000 vulnerable and in need of humanitarian assistance.[v]
While the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and provided $32 million in humanitarian assistance, the U.S. has not been welcoming to Haitian asylum seekers fleeing the intense devastation from earthquake.[vi] Despite the risks taken by populations fleeing their devastated home, using pandemic-related authority, the U.S. is barring Haitian asylum seekers from starting the process of asylum.[vii] As of November 2021, the U.S. has turned away more than 14,000 Haitians seeking asylum.[viii]
The Case of Nonwhite Migrants
The U.S. has been historically very restrictive with Haitian migrants. From the Reagan administration’s detention of thousands of Haitians[ix] to President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 Executive Order 12807, which suspended entry of many Haitian immigrants, it seems Haitians have been singled out and restricted by immigration policies across administrations.[x] In the nineties, the U.S. detained more than 12,000 Haitian refugees and denied most asylum cases.[xi] There have been many cases of exclusionary immigration policies in the U.S. that are one of the many symptoms of an immigration policy system entrenched in structural racism and xenophobia.[xii]
U.S. Immigration policies have historically and structurally excluded non-white populations.[xiii] For example, after the Transcontinental Railroad was built largely by Chinese immigrants between 1863 and 1869, the U.S. instituted the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all future immigration of Chinese laborers.[xiv]
In 1917, the U.S. instituted an immigration act that required all immigrants over sixteen to pass an English literacy exam and pay higher U.S. taxes upon arrival. This act also barred many immigrants from Asia.[xv] The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act) created national origins quotas for the total number of people allowed immigration visas in the U.S based upon nationality.[xvi] This completely excluded Asian immigrants and limited immigration from Black populations across Africa.[xvii] The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 reversed the 1924 legislation and created new pathways for some skilled populations, emphasized family reunification, and created quotas for refugees.[xviii]
The Trump administration’s immigration policies echoed the exclusionary immigration policies throughout U.S. history. Like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in 2018 there was a travel ban instituted in seven Muslim-majority countries, which was later expanded to thirteen in 2020. This also excluded all Syrian refugees fleeing human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Additionally, the Trump Administration attempted to reverse Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), began border wall construction at the U.S. southern border, and separated children from their families at the U.S. southern border as a part of a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal migration.
While these xenophobic policies have been largely reversed under the Biden Administration, their legacy impacts many, especially those who were subjected to the policies.[xix]
However, in the Biden administration it seems that the status quo for Haitians remains. On September 19, 2021, more than 14,000 Haitians were camped at Del Rio Bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum in the U.S. following the devastation of the August 14 earthquake. Despite the needs of the Haitian migrants, the Administration has called upon the Trump administration’s Title 42, established in March 2020, which allows for the expulsion of migrants due to a public health risk.[xx] As of November 10, 2021, Haitians continue to be deported and sent home. Some question if calling upon Title 42 is legal and many argue this is unethical with racist elements, as many Haitian migrants are of African descent.
When images of white Border Patrol agents on horseback swinging horse reigns to stop Black Haitians from crossing the border in September 2021 spread, some argued that the images harkened back to slavery in the U.S.[xxi] These images also bring to light the racial tensions and white supremacy still present in the U.S. and around the globe. While many Haitians are being expelled and sent back to Haiti, the Biden administration does deserve some credit since it has committed not to send unaccompanied children on expulsion flights.[xxii] There are also reports that pregnant women and families are less likely to be expelled.[xxiii]
Despite the proven economic benefits of migrants and refugees to receiving countries, there continues to be a polarized discussion on reducing the taxpayer cost of the temporary resettlement benefits provided to refugees and immigrants.[xxiv] If the Biden administration would like to stay true to its campaign promises on human rights and the protection of vulnerable groups, the administration should go against the status quo and provide robust protections for Haitians seeking refuge in the context of climate change and environmental disaster. The protection of vulnerable Haitian women and children is extremely important; however, the protection should be extended to more people seeking refuge at the U.S. border: all individuals seeking refuge have unique situational vulnerability given Haiti’s environmental fragility. If the Biden administration is truly going to live up to its campaign promises, there should be more inclusive and welcoming reception policies for Haitians seeking refuge.
The Biden administration should not call upon a public health policy, like Title 42, to justify expulsion of Haitians, especially those historically restricted from migrating to the U.S. Further, when the U.S. provides aid to a nearby country following an extreme climate event, like the $32 million in humanitarian assistance following the August 14 earthquake, there should also be increased readiness and preparation for the reception of people fleeing disaster.
To create a resilient Haiti, we should consider increasing labor migration and humanitarian pathways for Haitians, as remittances sent back home could create a more stable economy. This is especially true given the economic reliance on agriculture and the current unpredictability of weather patterns across the environmentally stressed island. Remittances are already important in Haiti, and as of 2020, roughly 23 percent of GDP in Haiti is made up of remittances received.[xxv] With increased migration pathways to the U.S., Haitians will continue sending remittances and boosting the economic resilience of households on the island.
Ultimately, given the increasing impacts of climate change on Haiti, it seems migration will be inevitable, and we should plan and prepare for an increase in refuge seekers. To better anticipate this future, the U.S. Congress should revisit legislation that was reintroduced in April 2021 by Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Nydia M. Velázquez.[xxvi] This legislation reintroduced a plan for robust domestic-focused climate programming and the creation of additional protections for environmental migrants and asylum seekers fleeing extreme climate events.
To safeguard the rights of those that will be most vulnerable to climate events, which disproportionally impact Black and Brown communities across the globe, the U.S. and other high-income countries should endorse legislation on climate change resilience strategy.[xxvii] Creating additional obligations, including non-refoulment or the obligation to provide at least temporary visas for environmental migrants and asylum seekers, will not only respond to the security threat of the climate crisis but will also bolster equity and justice in the U.S. immigration system by protecting Black and Brown populations most likely to migrate due to climate events, including Haitians fleeing extreme events and migrants fleeing drought across the Northern Triangle. Ultimately, we need better policies and stronger implementation of inclusive refugee and migration policies to avoid inequitable expulsion of people seeking refuge.
[i] United Nations (UN), “World Social Report, Chapter 3: Climate Change: Exacerbating Poverty and Inequality,” 2020, accessed November 2021, https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2020/02/World-Social-Report-2020-Chapter-3.pdf.
[ii] Bhawan Singh and Mark J Cohen, “Climate Change Resilience: The Case of Haiti,” University of Montreal and Oxfam America, March 2014, https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/314540/rr-climate-change-resilience-haiti-260314-en.pdf?sequence=1.
[iv] ReliefWeb, “2021 Haiti Earthquake Situation Report #3,” September 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/haiti/2021-haiti-earthquake-situation-report-3-september-20-2021.
[vi] Office of Press Relations, “USAID Provides $32 Million to respond to Haiti Earthquake,” United States Agency International Development (USAID), August 26, 2021, https://www.usaid.gov/news-information/press-releases/aug-26-2021-usaid-provides-32-million-respond-haiti-earthquake.
[vii] Maria Penaloza, “Haiti Haiti faces disasters and chaos. Its people are most likely to be denied U.S. asylum,” National Public Radio (NPR), October 16, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/10/16/1043458530/haitians–u-s-asylum–racist.
[ix] Gregory Jaynes, “U.S. is Remaining Adamant as Detained Haitians Press Appeals for Asylum,” The New York Times, April 24, 1982, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/04/24/us/us-is-remaining-adamant-as-detained-haitians-press-appeals-for-asylum.html.
[x] Frederique Desrosiers, “Op-ed: America Owes Haitian Migrants Asylum,” South Side Weekly, October 14, 2021, https://southsideweekly.com/op-ed-america-owes-haitian-migrants-asylum/.
[xi] A. Naomi Paik, “US turned away thousands of Haitian asylum-seekers and detained hundreds more in the 90s,” The Conversation, June 28, 2018, https://theconversation.com/us-turned-away-thousands-of-haitian-asylum-seekers-and-detained-hundreds-more-in-the-90s-98611.
[xii] Elizabeth Oh, “American Immigration Laws Have Always Been About Preserving Whiteness,” New America, September 20, 2020, https://www.newamerica.org/weekly/american-immigration-laws-have-always-been-about-preserving-whiteness/.
[xiv] History.com staff, “Chinese Exclusion Act,” History, August 24, 2018, updated September 13, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/chinese-exclusion-act-1882.
[xv] Office of The Historian, “Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act),” U.S. Department of State, accessed November 1, 2021, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act.
[xviii] Anna Diamond, “The 1924 Law That Slammed the Door on Immigrants and the Politicians Who Pushed it Back Open,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 19, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/1924-law-slammed-door-immigrants-and-politicians-who-pushed-it-back-open-180974910/.
[xix] Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “Biden moves to reverse Trump’s immigration agenda, pausing deportations and safeguarding DACA,” CBS News, January 20, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biden-immigration-executive-orders-daca-reverse-trump-policies/.
[xx] Amanda Holpuch, “Haiti deportations justified because of Covid, Biden homeland secretary says,” The Guardian, September 26, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/26/haiti-deportations-covid-biden-homeland-secretary-mayorkas.
[xxi] Fabiola Cineas, “Why America keeps turning its back on Haitian migrants,” Vox, September 24, 2021, https://www.vox.com/22689472/haitian-migrants-asylum-history-violence.
[xxii] The Associated Press, “Many Haitian Migrants Are Staying in The U.S. Even As Expulsion Flights Rise,” National Public Radio (NPR), September 23, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/09/23/1040000579/many-haitian-migrants-are-staying-in-the-u-s-even-as-expulsion-flights-rise.
[xxiv] Michael Clemens, Cindy Huang, Jimmy Graham, “The Economic and Fiscal Effects of Granting Refugees Labor Market Access (Brief),” Center for Global Development, October 9, 2018, https://www.cgdev.org/publication/economic-and-fiscal-effects-granting-refugees-formal-labor-market-access-brief.
[xxv] The World Bank Group, “Personal remittances, received (% of GDP) – Haiti,” accessed November 1, 2021, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/BX.TRF.PWKR.DT.GD.ZS?locations=HT.
[xxvi] Website of Senator Ed Markey, “Senator Markey, Rep. Velazquez, Reintroduce Legislation To Aid People Displaced By Climate Change and Support Global Resilience,” May 19, 2021, https://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/senator-markey-rep-velzquez-reintroduce-legislation-to-aid-people-displaced-by-climate-change-and-support-global-resilience.
[xxvii] U.S. Congress, The Senate and House of Representatives, A Bill To establish a Global Climate Change Resilience Strategy, to authorize the admission of climate-displaced persons, and for other purposes, S. 1335, introduced in Senate April 22, 2021, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/1335/text.