Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A History Lesson: Haiti, Guantanamo and Our "Common Humanity"

Wednesday morning President Obama issued a statement regarding the humanitarian crisis following the earthquake that has devastated Haiti. Obama said that Haiti would have the "unwavering support" of the United States and specified that "this is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity we all share." Obama's comments, a precursor to an international relief effort directed toward the suffering people of Haiti, reminded me of a different moment in US-Haiti relations when the "common humanity" of Haitians with Americans was not assumed, or acted upon:

In the early 1970s Haitians began to flee to the United States and until 1981 they were detained in South Florida, their point of entry into the US, and quickly deported. In the early 80s a "migration crisis" occurred as 125,000 Cubans attempted to enter the United States at the same time as 25,000 Haitians. The Carter Administration responded by inventing a new legal status to describe these immigrants, "Cuban-Haitian Entrants", which allowed most of those entering the US to stay. However, following this measure the official policy toward Haitian immigration became more strict. Under the new policy Haitian boats were intercepted and escorted directly back to Haiti, never reaching our shores and without offering the Haitians aboard the opportunity to apply for political asylum. After the overthrow of President Aristide in 1991 the Haitian army and other repressive groups within the country began to slaughter his supporters, causing a massive outflow of people from Haiti to the United States. Unable to simply return the fleeing Haitians because of the inevitability of political retaliation and acutely aware of how it would look if they did, the first Bush Administration re-directed them to a small island off of Cuba, which is held indefinitely by the United States: Guantanamo Bay.

A tent city was hastily erected at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay to house 12,000 Haitians and a massive review process was undertaken to judge their acceptability to enter the United States. A bit more than 30% of the Haitians originally held at Guantanamo were permitted to enter the United States, but they kept arriving and by 1992 the Bush Administration reconsidered the policy and began to circumvent the process by--once again--intercepting Haitian ships and escorting them back to Haiti, which had descended into lawlessness by that point. The Bush policy successfully discouraged Haitians from fleeing to the United States but human rights advocates criticized Bush's policies. During his presidential campaign Bill Clinton decried them as "cruel"; however in the early stages of his Presidency when Haitian refugees once again began trying escape to the United States he reopened Guantanamo (which had closed) and employed it for the same purpose, reneging on his campaign promise to treat them differently. Further, the Clinton Administration championed new legislation that would allow it to reject the incoming Haitians wholesale despite the fact that they were fleeing political persecution, in direct conflict with the Refugee Act of 1980 which states that the Attorney General "shall not deport or return any alien" to a nation "if [s/he] determines that such alien's life or freedom would be threatened there". The justification for circumventing the Refugee Act was that it applied only to migrants on US soil, a bit of legal acrobatics that should seem familiar post- W. Of course there were objections to this legal maneuvering. In his (singular) dissenting opinion Justice Blackburn wrote,

"I believe that the duty of nonreturn expressed in both the Protocol and the statute is clear. The majority finds it "extraordinary" that Congress would have intended the ban on returning "any alien" to apply to aliens at sea. That Congress would have meant what it said is not remarkable. What is extraordinary in this case is that the Executive [meaning President Clinton], in disregard of the law, would take to the seas to intercept fleeing refugees and force them back to their persecutors and that the Court would strain to sanction that conduct."

And New York Congressman Charlie Rangel said, when interrogating INS Commissioner Gene McNary,

"Rangel: I hope I'm making it loud and clear that I think the policy is racist. And I would like to just ask you, Mr. McNary, is there any question in your mind that if the people on these boats came from Ireland, that we would exercise the same policy, notwithstanding the law? And if the situation existed in Ireland with this ragtag, crooked, violent group of gangsters who call themselves soldiers, do you think for one minute that the United States of America would return these Irish people to Ireland?

McNary: Congressman, that is even an offensive question. We return anyone who is supposed to be returned under the laws of the United States of America.''

Despite high profile objections from human rights advocates, politicians and celebrities such as Katherine Dunham and Arthur Ashe (who protested the Clinton repatriation policy a year before his death), the overwhelming political opinion was in favor of the repatriation policy. The popular perception among Americans that the Haitian "boat people" were infected with AIDS fed the justification for first holding them at Guantanamo and then turning them away en masse.

In a larger sense, this popular and legal shift set the stage for many subsequent elements of US policy. President Carter's Presidency was perceived in retrospect as suffering irreparable damage because he allowed an influx of Cubans and Haitians into the country and the US Presidents who followed him--Republican and Democrat alike-- became increasingly hostile toward immigration in general. In the 1990s, emboldened by the Haitian case, the Clinton Administration repatriated hundreds of Chinese boat people seeking asylum in the United States. And after the first World Trade Center bombing Orientalism and Islamophobia became intertwined in the public perception that immigration into the United States is "lax"-- a charge that is often repeated in our present moment. By the end of the 90s politicians like California's Pete Wilson led the charge for stricter immigration legislation, which developed into full scale xenophobia under the second Bush Administration, with immigration becoming tied to fears about the US economy and the "war on terror".

And of course, Guantanamo Bay... well, we know what happened there, right? (Actually, is happening. The prison and interrogation camp at Guantanamo Bay is still open. Just saying.)

In legal terms Guantanamo Bay is an "anomalous zone": a space where the rule of law under which Americans live is temporarily suspended. Its geographical position, just outside US borders supports this function (although historically there have been anomalous zones within national borders, like sanctuary churches and red light districts, for e.g.). That means the people detained there, whether it was Haitian boat people in the 90s or Arab and Muslim prisoners post 9/11, do not enjoy the rights--even basic human rights--that the US extends to world citizens outside this space. The space itself is designed for that purpose. So while different categories of immigration and asylum--legal and illegal, economic and political--have been collapsed into a blanket rejection of foreign (read: non-European) "others". And Guantanamo provides a place to act on those populations the US government decides do not count as entirely human.

So no matter how sincere he is, when President Obama pledges the "unwavering support" of the US to Haiti in the name of our "common humanity" there is a lot of history being swept under the carpet. The priority should be getting aid to Haiti in this moment of crisis, but the smart thing to do here--if history is any indication-- would be to keep the side-eye at the ready.


  1. SIGH.

    Don't even get me started, homes. Already there's "concern" in South Florida about the possibility of emergency population intake - which, considering the substantial Haitian and Haitian-American populations here, would be a sensible and compassionate enterprise - in the near future. And by "concern" I mean racists masquerading as patriots hand-wringing over the devestating impact of a sudden jump in the population's effect on the state economy. I'm not surprised, but I am disappointed. This is the same place that basically had a "Cubans, welcome! Haitians, not so much..." policy through most of my teen years in the '90s. The fact that its still a hot-button issue tells me everything I need to know.

    And, yep. That seat of horror and locus of national shame that we flippantly refer to as Gitmo is still open. This orange ribbon of mine is proving to be less than magical. Between this and Afghanistan I'm 'bout ready to give the commander-in-chief a wake-up nut-punch.

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