Will US Repeat History by Failing Haitians Again?

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A migrant from Haiti wearing a mask in the colors of the Mexican and US flags stands at a border crossing waiting to apply for asylum in the US, February 19, 2021. 
© 2021 Jair Cabrera Torres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In 1993, when I was a junior staff member at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I saw first-hand the tragic repercussions of US President Bill Clinton’s failure to follow through on the promise he made as a candidate to end summary expulsions to Haiti and provide temporary refuge to Haitians fleeing political unrest. The subsequent unraveling of the human rights situation in Haiti was terrible to watch, eventually prompting an intervention of the country by a multinational force led by the United States.

The administration of now-President Joe Biden and the US Congress should avoid repeating history. Human Rights Watch’s recent assessment of Haiti concluded that the country was “facing one of its worst outbreaks of violence since 1986” and was failing “to meet the basic needs of its people, resolve long-standing human rights problems, and address humanitarian crises.”  US Department of Homeland Security officials are warning “that Haitians removed to Haiti may face harm upon return.” But instead of ending expulsions to the country during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Biden administration has sent 21 planes of people being expelled or deported to Haiti since February 1.

While the long-term solution for Haiti requires addressing the underlying human rights and humanitarian situation in the country, there are two urgent actions the US should take to protect basic rights in Haiti and beyond. The first is to immediately end summary expulsions from the US, including those to Haiti, to protect people from return to a place where they face serious risk of harm. The Biden administration should stand by this principle by immediately ending sweeping border expulsions erroneously justified as public health measures.

The US should also use executive and legislative power to protect the ties to home and family of Haitians living in the United States. Haitians who under previous grants of temporary protected status (TPS), have established lives and families in the United States should have access to a legalization program such as the one proposed in the American Dream and Promise Act, which may be voted on in the House of Representatives this week. In the short term, the most practical way to protect these peoples’ human rights is for the Biden administration to re-designate Haiti for TPS.

Taken in tandem, these steps would allow Haitians living with TPS, and people seeking protection, a consistent rights-respecting response and avoid a repeat of past mistakes.