For weeks, deeply upsetting images have dominated the Mexican news of Haitian families clutching sobbing babies in diapers as they attempt to make their way to the U.S. to apply for asylum.
“Haitians in Chiapas live in migrant chaos,” said one article a month ago in the Mexican national newspaper El Universal. “Earthquake, storms, and floods: the constant battle facing Haitians,” read a headline in El Sol de Mexico, also a month ago. “Over 200 Haitian migrants refuse to leave the bus in Veracruz” read a headline in the national publication, Proceso.
That tens of thousands of people were en route to the U.S. to apply for asylum was no secret. The government should have been prepared to receive them like human beings.
On a migrant route
Here in Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, the sight of desperate migrants, often on foot, heading north from Central America toward what they believe to be a better life – and asylum – in the United States is not uncommon.
For the past two years, the number of Haitian migrants looking for work, refuge, and sustenance have been few – dotting the roadsides of the most frequently traveled immigration routes in the country: Starting at the Guatemala-Mexico border in the state of Chiapas, up through Veracruz, onto the railways of “La Bestia,” up into the northern regions of the country, and on to the U.S.
After the last major earthquake in western Haiti in August, and Tropical Storm Grace just days later, many Haitians who had been migrating to South and Central America since the 2010 quake now saw their home country as even less safe to return to. After coordinating on social media, they started traveling – bus loads teeming with exhausted, sweating children and parents – through Mexico, toward the U.S. to apply for asylum. (You have to be physically present on U.S. soil to apply for asylum.)
“In the past 2-3 weeks we’ve seen a surge of migrants, mostly Haitian nationals,” said Alba Valdez Alemán, a Veracruz-based journalist with Notiver who collaborates with the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement. “Entire families have had to leave countries they immigrated to Chile and Brazil, because of [the lack of] quality of life. Now we are seeing a lot of operations [in Mexico]: migrants stopped at checkpoints.”
I thought I’d seen the worst of utterly inhumane immigration policies when President Trump left office in January. But with the Biden administration burying its head in the sand as tens of thousands of Haitians are stuck living in squalor in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas – I think the current president is looking to give the former a run for his money.
Women have been particularly affected. Alemán, writing for Meso American Migrant Movement about maternity and migration, recounted the plight of female Haitian migrants passing through Veracruz: “Thousands of Haitian men and women have overflowed into Mexican territory, but according to UN Women, 51 percent of the people who migrate in the last decade are women…A large number of these women have been leaving Haiti since 2010, after the earthquake that left them without a home or employment. The first countries in America that they came to were Chile and Brazil, where they tried to find work as domestic workers.”
“I think we will continue to see more migrants,” Alemán told me Friday. “I was speaking with a colleague, a photographer, he’d been in camps in Colombia recently. He said it’s overflowing with migrants…In one camp, he said, there were easily 40,000 people.”
Always about politics, never people
The Biden administration knew exactly what it was doing when it let 14,000 mostly Haitian migrants gather in absolute squalor under a bridge in a remote Texas border town.
This policy of treating Haitian migrants worse than other migrant groups is not new, and racist immigration policies are not new, either. And nothing illustrates this despicable and tragic situation better than how we treated Cuban migrants over the years and, in the wake of the humanitarian crisis left by the U.S. pullout, more recently Afghan migrants, versus how the Department of Homeland Security is treating Haitian refugees now. It’s always about politics and economics, never about human suffering.
The government can save its hollow responses that the images of Border Patrol chasing Black bodies on horses “do not reflect the U.S.” and this administration can continue to virtue signal with its excuses of expanding Temporary Protected Status.
The news that some Haitians are being allowed to reach family in the U.S. and apply for asylum, or that Border Patrol won’t use large animals against migrants in Del Rio is, of course, welcome news. But it is far from enough, and it does not eclipse what has already been done and the abuses that people have already suffered.