• Ideas
  • Immigration

BLM Co-Founder: Trump Admin’s Haiti Emails Perpetuate the Myth of the ‘Black Criminal’

5 minute read

Opal Tometi is the Executive Director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration and a Co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

Black immigrants are once again in the cross-hairs of the federal government’s racist and xenophobic immigration policies. Last week, via e-mails uncovered by the Associated Press, we learned that the Trump Administration is considering ending a detrimental humanitarian protection afforded thousands Haitian immigrants, based on a ubiquitous, racist stereotype of Black migrants in particular — the myth of the Black criminal.

According to the Associated Press, the Department of Homeland Security is searching for evidence of criminal convictions of Haitian immigrants as it weighs whether to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which is set to expire in July. If TPS were to expire, nearly 50,000 immigrants would be sent back to Haiti. Haiti continues to suffer from a poor physical infrastructure, a public health crises, the effects of a catastrophic earthquake, a recent hurricane and a food insecurity crisis. These conditions are exacerbated by political turmoil in the country which emerged after the Haiti’s recent presidential elections. There’s a broad consensus that Haiti lacks the physical and social infrastructure to accept new arrivals if the U.S. were to terminate TPS.

Haiti first received TPS on January 21, 2010, following a catastrophic earthquake that left an estimated 1.5 million displaced and the death of thousands of Haitians (estimates vary; the UN estimated the death toll to be around 220,000 people, while the Haitian government has put the figure at 316,000). The country experienced irreparable damage to its infrastructure, including electricity, water, telephone services, hospitals, government buildings, roads, bridges, and the international airport.

The progress in improving Haiti’s conditions has been slow and uneven and is a direct result of current and historical destructive policies and practices to undermine and destabilize Haiti’s political and economic stability for U.S. interests. Since the 2010 earthquake, private entities such as the Clinton Foundation and the Red Cross have initiated land grabs, wasted millions on ineffective “recovery” efforts, and contributed to corporate-backed political candidates in Haiti’s elections, a move that had produced delays in Haiti’s own presidential transition. There are people still living in tents due to slow reconstruction. The deadly cholera outbreak, caused by UN forces, has yet to be adequately addressed; in fact, the UN has just recently admitted wrongdoing. And years-long delays of Haiti’s presidential election has caused massive social unrest. Despite these treacherous conditions, last fall the U.S. began accelerating deportations of Haitian immigrants.

The U.S. has long characterized Haitian immigrants as criminals. Haitians are subjected to a U.S. immigration policy that is particularly unusual.The tradition of labeling Haitians as lawbreakers began in 1963 when the first boat of Haitians seeking political asylum was summarily rejected by U.S. immigration officials, while at the same time the U.S. admitted thousands of Cubans as refugees and political asylum-seekers. This practice continues with the detaining and deporting of Haitians in disproportionate numbers. The U.S. has exported these punitive, anti-Haitian practices throughout the Caribbean by training immigration enforcement officers in the region and directly supporting the building of border walls and detention centers in the Dominican Republic. The U.S.’ refusal to acknowledge the plight of displaced Haitians and maintaining inhumane practices of neglect, disrespect and violence amounts to a gross violation of human rights.

While the Trump administration has vitriolically targeted Black people and immigrants with policies that will likely expand mass criminalization, the request for criminal data for a specific ethnic community is unorthodox. In 1990 Congress created Temporary Protected Status to create a system for granting temporary protection to people unable to return to their home countries because of an environmental or political catastrophe. Since then, the United States has granted TPS to nationals of certain countries that have become involved in violent conflict or experienced a natural disaster. The U.S. government has rarely, if ever, used the criminal history of a certain immigrant population in determining if the whole community should be allowed to remain in the country under a humanitarian program, like TPS. This practice makes sense as such programs are designed to protect those fleeing unbearable, inhumane conditions, regardless of their background.

U.S. immigration law does not specify that criminal data on a specific immigrant population should be a consideration for determining whether to extend Temporary Protected Status to those nationals. Furthermore Haitian immigrants are already barred from obtaining this special status if they have been convicted of a crime. During the application process, applicants submit their fingerprints for a criminal background check and are routinely denied TPS for even minor criminal contact.

While TPS is far from a permanent solution to the vast challenges facing Haitian immigrants and Haiti itself, it offers an important refuge for a group that has been victimized by natural disasters and harmful Western interventions. The program allows thousands of Haitian immigrants to work and children to attend school, providing social and economic stability for families and communities.

For these reasons and more, America has a moral obligation to support Haitian immigrants by extending Temporary Protected Status without delay and ending deportations to Haiti. The Department of Homeland Security must also fundamentally alter its perception of Haitians as criminals and instead implement long-term programs that allow Haitian families to live and thrive in the U.S.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.