For many 2020 voters of Presidential candidate Joe Biden and Vice-Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, their historic electoral win would symbolize a drastic change from the vituperative language and callous policies that came to define the chaotic and destructive Trump years. Whether it was the Trump administration’s criminalization of asylum seekers, separation of mother and child at the border through their cruel “zero tolerance” strategy, reduction in refugee resettlement, or use of xenophobic rhetoric before racializing a viral disease like COVID-19 that would stoke rampant Sinophobia, a more “compassionate” approach was promised by his would-be successors. However, as the late journalist Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report astutely coined to describe the Obama administration, in many facets the Democratic Party represented not a “lesser evil” to the Republicans, but a more “effective evil” whereby right-wing agendas and policy prescriptions such as austerity, imperialism, and an anti-immigrant deportation machinery persist with less push-back or public outrage due to a veneer of progress that is not materially realized for the most marginalized in society. An account of the sheer numbers of Haitian deportations under Biden’s watch, resumption in the construction of “Trump’s border wall,” and disparate treatment granted to European refugees from Ukraine, give validity to that assessment.
Recent outrage by Democrats has focused on the opportunistic actions of Texas and Florida Republican governors Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis who have transported thousands of migrants to “Democratic strongholds” and nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, with Democrats decrying it as “human trafficking” and weaponizing migrants to “score political points.” Haitian-American White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre even called their actions a “cruel, premeditated political stunt.” While these two conservative governors have horrendous records on migrants and are cynically exploiting crises brought on by climate change and deep legacies of U.S. destabilization in the region, to rile up their nativist base, there is less attention being paid to U.S. officials in Biden’s own Department of Homeland Security falsifying addresses on the Venezuelan migrants’ immigration paperwork, ensuring they would be deported, along with the volume of deportations occurring under his Democratic presidency.
While the Trump administration was sued and blocked by a federal court in 2018 to end the legal protected status of 300,000 Haitian, Sudanese, Nicaraguan and Salvadorean immigrants due to Trump’s “racial bias,” the height of Haitian deportations in his four years in office peaked at 6, 691. Under Biden, over 24,000 Haitians have been expelled in his first two and a half years of office-a greater number of Haitian deportations than his last three predecessors combined despite pressure from Haitian and Black immigrant advocacy groups to immediately halt the deportation flights. In 2021, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas defended mass deportations of Haitians fleeing natural disasters, political turmoil after years of U.S. meddling, and U.S. sponsored gang violence. Mayorkas would claim it is a public health measure during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This pseudo-scientific “health measure” was rightly lambasted for the xenophobia it inured during Trump’s implementation of Title 42 in 2020, yet the Biden administration has fallen back on that same anti-immigrant logic despite unsuccessfully attempting to halt Title 42 in 2022. Moreover, U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the Biden administration is continuing some of the most controversial aspects of Trump’s border wall projects that continue to rip through sacred land and erode statutes meant to protect the environment in the name of “national security.”
Furthermore, the mass deportations of Haitians and other nonwhite asylum seekers is in stark contrast to the administration’s approach toward Ukrainian refugees. In pursuing a continued NATO proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, the Biden administration has rolled out a streamlined process called “Uniting for Ukraine,” whereby hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian migrants are eligible for “humanitarian parole” allowing them two-year residency with a U.S. sponsor, while expanding permanent legal pathways to expedite their processing. The geo-politicization of U.S. refugee policy isn’t new and has shaped hostile policies toward Haitian asylees for decades. During the first three years of the Cuban Revolution (1959-1962) and height of Cold War era tension with the Soviet aligned Castro government, the U.S. invested an astonishing $1 billion into the Cuban Refugee Program, given the political significance Cuban exiles represented in the United States plan to destroy global communist movements. Government investment was channeled into resettlement, housing, job training, education/English language assistance, and business loans. Additionally, given the racial makeup of many first wave Cuban immigrants, they were able to benefit from better resourced racially segregated schools in Jim Crow era Miami, Florida while taking advantage of some affirmative action initiatives given their ethnic minoritized status.
This strategic level of critical investment and support from the U.S. government toward Miami’s Cuban immigrant community’s socioeconomic and political well-being was palpably distinct to the treatment Haitian asylum seekers received in the decades that followed. Between 1977-1981, an estimated 60,000 Haitian immigrants fleeing poverty and violent political repression from the Baby Doc regime, arrived in Miami. Negative stereotypes shaped much of the discourse on the Haitian immigrant community in Miami, whose refugees were called “boat people” and were considered a “drain” on public resources by anti-immigrant groups at the time. The U.S. did not welcome Haitian migrants with open arms, strengthening penalties to limit their asylum access. In 1981, the Reagan administration signed an agreement with Baby Doc Duvalier to interdict any vessel suspected of transporting undocumented immigrants from Haiti for immediate return, and between 1981-1990 the Immigration Naturalization Service found only 11 requests for asylum to be valid. Rather than “refugees,” Reagan characterized Haitian asylum seekers as largely “economic migrants” who were abandoning “one of the poorest countries in the world.”
While President Biden and his first Black female VP ran on a more “fair, safe” immigration policy that respected dignity and the humanity of migrants and asylum seekers, their administration’s record tells a different tale. One where viral footage is shown of Texas Border Patrol agents on horseback using their reins in whipping motions against Haitian migrants in Del Rio and subsequently distributing celebratory coins of the terror, while Biden’s DHS clears them of criminal wrongdoing. Another depicts Kamala Harris assertively telling Guatemalans and other Central American asylum seekers, “do not come.” Their administration continues to oversee mass deportations of Haitians while propping up the hugely unpopular de facto Prime Minister in Haiti Ariel Henry, who rules without a functioning legislature or judiciary while violently repressing demonstrations. The hypocrisy led former U.S. envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote to resign in objection to the cruelty of the Biden administration’s treatment of the Haitian people. When it comes to Haiti and their descendants, Biden and Harris have not been the lesser evil to Trump, but the more effective evil.