In 1980, after Cuban President Fidel Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so, the Mariel boatlift brought upwards of 125,000 Cubans to the United States. Then President Jimmy Carter called it an “unprecedented emergency” and ordered the Navy and Coast Guard to assist boats in distress. They did. About 1,000 times.
A decade later some 40,000 Haitians tried to reach the U.S. by boat. They were fleeing the military rulers who had overthrown the democratically elected president Aristide, as well as the Tontons Macoutes police force whose existence dates back to the era of Francois Duvalier, aka Papa Doc. Many of the refugees perished at sea. The boats were not permitted to land in the U.S. and were instead directed to Guantanamo, the U.S. base in Cuba. Guantanamo soon filled up and President George Bush ordered the Coast Guard to intercept the boats and send the refugees back to Haiti. His successor, Bill Clinton, continued that policy.
Both groups would become known as “boat people.” Both were fleeing autocratic, brutal, and corrupt regimes. Why the difference in how they were treated? The official U.S. government explanation is that the Haitians were “economic” refugees, fleeing poverty and looking for jobs. As such, they cannot be granted asylum like the Cuban refugees fleeing from their government. But the real reason has to do with two factors that have been and continue to be key determinants of U.S. immigration policy.
One is ideology. Those fleeing Communist governments, whether from Cuba or Vietnam or the Soviet countries, are almost automatically granted asylum and those three groups make up the majority of the refugees that were admitted to the U.S. during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. On the other hand the Haitians, much like the Guatamalans and Salvadorans, were fleeing from right wing governments, no less oppressive and corrupt, but friendly to the U.S.
The second reason is racism. It has had an influence on U.S. policy toward refugees and immigrants since the very first efforts to develop a policy. In the late 19th century it was behind the creation of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the 20’s the U.S. tried to make the ethnic and racial makeup of the country look like it did in 1890. The ethnic quota system that was to govern U.S. policy on immigration for 40 years was, quite simply, an attempt to keep America white and protestant. What differentiated the Haitians from the groups of refugees that were readily being granted asylum? They were black.
A Washington Post story from April 19 1980, Haitian Boat People: Flotsam in an American Sea of Plenty, written by Ward Sinclair, describes an example of what awaited the Haitians when they came to these shores: “Like guileless waifs they had sailed, 29 of them in a rickety boat for 11 days, crossing 700 miles of ocean from Haiti to a land where men breathe free air and walk streets paved with gold.
“When this contingent of America’s ‘black boat people’ innocently hove to on sparkling Miami Beach last weekend, U.S. immigration agents swooped in and arrested them as aliens attempting illegal entry.”
Why? “The government insists that they are here for ‘economic’ reasons, which means they cannot stay. The Haitians and their defenders argue they are political refugees, entitled to asylum and the federal benefits that go to political immigrants.
“The point is that in a society such as Haiti’s, where the Duvalier family has reigned for decades and where the average annual income is $225, there is no good way to separate economics from politics, as the INS has attempted to do.”
Sinclair concludes: “…because of the Haitians, the thesis that the United States is the ultimate haven and protector for the world’s tattered underdogs is facing its most severe test.”
UPI syndicated columnist Mary McGrory opined: “There are the right kind of boat people, it seems, and the wrong kind.
“The right kind come from Vietnam. They flee an oppressive communist regime. We raise money for them, offer them asylum and weep for them in world councils.
“The wrong kind come to our shores from Haiti, but they are fleeing an oppressive fascist regime. When they try to land here, we send them back or throw them in jail. The human rights administration ignores them.”
McGrory calls this ”the great paradox of our immigration policies: victims of left-wing tyrannies are automatically ‘huddled masses yearning to be free;’ people like Haitians, who live under a fascist bully who governs with extortion and torture, can’t be let in because their admission would ‘open the floodgates’ to the merely greedy.”
Things have not gotten appreciably better for Haitian refugees seeking asylum in the United States. According to the AP, Haitians are granted asylum at the lowest rate of any nationality with high numbers of asylum bidders.
This past July, the Haitian president was assassinated. A month later the island nation was hit with a devastating earthquake. By September, some 14,000 displaced Haitians were gathered at a small Texas border town hoping to gain admission to the U.S. Most were put on planes and deported back to Haiti. The image that most will remember from that time is one of a U.S. border agent chasing down a Haitian immigrant on horseback and brandishing a whip.