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Opinion: Cruel treatment of Haitian refugees inexcusable

The United States shouldn’t let people successfully storm its borders, but it has a duty to treat asylum-seekers with dignity, and to recognize basic human rights.

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Haitian migrants wade across the Rio Grande to escape deportation.

Haitian migrants wade across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico on Sunday to avoid deportation to Haiti from the U.S. The U.S. is flying Haitians camped in a Texas border town back to their homeland and blocking others from crossing the border from Mexico in a massive show of force that signals the beginning of what could be one of America’s swiftest, large-scale expulsions of migrants or refugees in decades.


“The end goal is always the United States.”

That’s what Eduardo Gamarra, professor of political science at Florida International University, told USA Today when asked why so many Haitian refugees are trying to enter the United States through the southern border.

Of that, Americans should be proud. Through the Constitution, an independent judiciary, a tradition of freedom and personal liberty and a long history of immigration, Americans have built a nation that still shines as a beacon of hope to, as Emma Lazerus famously wrote, “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and the “wretched refuse” of the world’s teeming shores.

But history shows Americans are not always anxious to live up to that ideal. Right now, the Biden administration is making an unholy mess of it.

By escorting thousands of these refugees aboard hastily summoned aircraft and summarily repatriating them to Haiti, without the benefit of due process or the opportunity to apply for asylum, the administration is acting with cruel heartlessness. 

The abrupt resignation this week of special envoy Daniel Foote, who had served in that position only since July, was a wake-up call. In a scathing letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he called the mass deportation “inhumane, counterproductive” and “deeply flawed.” Foote said he had made policy recommendations that were “ignored and dismissed.” 

Why is this operation cruel? 

First, asylum-seekers deserve to be heard, and to have their claims adjudicated. The group of Haitians who bravely crossed the Rio Grande and amassed under a bridge — at one point estimated to number 15,000 — includes families with small children. Border patrol agents on horseback have been photographed using what appear to be aggressive tactics against these people.

Some refugees have been allowed into the United States to await adjudication. But the administration has not been transparent as to how it decides which people to accept.

Second, many of these refugees are believed to have come from Central and South America, as evidenced by their approach to the southern border. They likely have been living in those areas for years, having left Haiti because of earthquakes and political unrest. Now, the Biden administration is sending them to a Haiti with which they are no longer familiar.

Third, Haiti has, in recent months, suffered a presidential assassination and the twin terrors of another severe earthquake and a tropical storm. It is a nation in turmoil, with gang violence escalating and impeding the transport of emergency supplies and with economic opportunity shrinking.

As The Economist recently described it, “Thousands of people are huddled in parks, without shelter, food or water. Several medical facilities, already scarce in the worst-affected area, have been destroyed.”

Fourth, the refugees are likely trying to come here because the pandemic and other factors have dried up their hopes in lands where they already faced racism and language barriers.

They are the very definition of huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and they are human beings.

However poorly they are being treated at the U.S. border, they consider the slim chance of entering this country far better than what they already have endured.

We’re not suggesting the United States should accept all of these refugees. The nation cannot afford to allow people to rush the southern border with impunity. Immigration should be done orderly and according to law. 

But the world’s beacon of freedom should treat all huddled masses with dignity and respect, recognizing the perils they have endured for a whiff of freedom. 

And the Biden administration, rather than repeating the mistakes of previous administrations, should ramp up facilities, treatment centers and legal infrastructure along the border to better handle the constant surge of people yearning to enter the United States.