A Helping Hand, Then a Slap in the Face: U.S. Immigration Enforcement Policies Cause More Suffering

Jun 05, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Haitian-Americans, myself included, have been especially proud that our adoptive homeland not only took the lead in recovery and relief efforts in Haiti after the massive January earthquake, but also temporarily suspended deportations of undocumented Haitian immigrants and granted them work permits so that they could earn income and help affected relatives in Haiti.

Obama took these steps in short order while consistently voicing support and sympathy for the Haitian people, not to mention providing $930 million in aid to Haiti after the earthquake. Just last week the U.S. pledged $1.15 billion more in rebuilding aid at the International Donors Conference for Haiti. These moves only intensified the immense goodwill Haitians here and in Haiti have for Americans in general and for Pres. Obama in particular. 

So it was with deep disappointment, and distress, that we learned from the New York Times last week that some of the people who were evacuated from Haiti by U.S. Marines in the chaotic days after the earthquake had been jailed in immigration detention centers from the first day they arrived here. Some of them were even kept in shackles. None had been deemed criminals or a security threats; they simply had no papers proving they were legal immigrants.

That many of the evacuees lost everything in the disaster and arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs was apparently beside the point to U.S immigration authorities. But for Haitian-Americans and non-hyphenated Americans too, this was the point – and an outrageous one at that. How can the very administration that urged Americans to show compassion and charity towards Haiti and its traumatized people turn around and jail some of those very same people?  It was more than a cruel slap in the face; it was bureaucratic kick in the gut.

The embarrassment over the news coverage of the detentions prompted the administration to quickly change course last Thursday and release some 40 Haitian detainees being held in South Florida as immigrant and refugee advocates called out the administration. Releasing the detainees was the correct and compassionate thing to do, but it does make one wonder what the administration was thinking and if there are any more detainees being held elsewhere that advocates may not know about. It’s not like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that locked up the Haitians, is going around publicizing their actions. The only reason the refugee advocates found out about the detainees was because their relatives in the U.S. asked for help.

In fact, last week we learned that ICE was keeping other secrets about how it targets undocumented immigrants and how it treats them in custody. The Washington Post exposed an internal memo showing that ICE established deportation quotas to meet or exceed last year’s deportation rates and required immigration agents to go after undocumented immigrants, such as busboys and nannies, who could be deported more easily and quickly, instead of focusing mainly on immigrants with criminal records, which was the official administration policy. That wasn’t the only problem at ICE. As the New York Times further revealed, the agency also mistreated and mishandled mentally ill immigrant detainees and violated their legal rights. 

I want to take the administration at its word when it says the quota memo was an unauthorized move by an overzealous supervisor and not official administration policy secret shift in policy. I want to believe that no other earthquake evacuees will be treated like terrorists transported here from Guantanamo Bay, but I’m a little skeptical given recent incidents and those from the past. Taken together they don’t make ICE, or the administration, look good. At best, they reflect a troubling level of inconsistency and perhaps even dishonesty at ICE; at worst a stubborn and arrogant disdain for the president’s publicly stated objective to reform the immigration system in way that is fair and humane. Whatever the case, these events cry out for the need for legislation that will replace ineffective and haphazard enforcement policies with ones that work, are fair, and reflect American values.

President Obama still enjoys significant support from the vast majority of Haitian-Americans -- and deservedly so. He began paying attention to Haiti early in his administration and after the earthquake he made Patrick Gaspard, his Haitian-American political director, the White House’s liaison to Haitian-American leaders. The president also gave $200,000 of his Nobel Peace Prize winnings to the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, a gesture that meant a lot to us. But the truth is Pres. Obama had us at hello and long before he even became president. During the 2008 campaign, “Haitians for Obama” chapters sprung up around the country and fundraisers were held for him in large Haitian enclaves in New York, Miami, Boston and Chicago.

Now though we’re worried about what ICE might do next. Target injured Haitian evacuees being treated in American hospitals? The possibility doesn’t seem so far-fetched given what we've seen so far. After all, ICE has an established track record. Pres. Obama can stop ICE from building on that record by demanding that Janet Napolitano, his homeland security secretary, and John Morton, the assistant secretary for ICE, get with his program.