Haitian-Americans Say Biden Is Turning His Back on a Country He Promised to Help

14 minute read

It takes a lot to faze Marleine Bastien. After growing up under the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, she left Port-au-Prince for Miami in 1981. The 62-year-old thought she had seen it all in her four decades working with the city’s Haitian community as a social worker and paralegal—until now.

Every day, the situation Bastien faces in the yellow stucco building that houses her advocacy organization in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood feels like a new low. “It’s like the community is suffering from a collective trauma, to the point where at our center, we have members coming in and telling us, ‘I cannot sleep, I cannot stand even watching the news,’” she says. Before Christmas, families already struggling under the financial strains of the pandemic told her they were now having to set aside money in case family members in Haiti were kidnapped and needed to pay ransom. “I never heard that before,” she says.

The Haitian-American diaspora is used to unsettling news from the island. But in the past six months, Haiti has not only gone through the assassination of a sitting president, a constitutional crisis, and repeated attempts on the acting prime minister’s life, but also a devastating earthquake that killed thousands, followed by a tropical storm and prolonged fuel crises. Powerful gangs have stepped into the void; they now control more than half of the nation, by some estimates. They fund themselves by taking both prominent and ordinary citizens hostage for exorbitant sums, including a recent group of American missionaries. The country now has the highest kidnapping rate in the world.

Haitian-Americans have been watching these horrors play out on the screens of their phones, connected by WhatsApp and social media but helpless in the face of daily pleas for help from friends and family. “There’s the constant pressure from family members who are scared to death, calling people here asking for help,” says Bastien. “And you just feel trapped.”

President Joe Biden was a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump’s Haiti policies. While courting the Haitian-American vote in Miami during his 2020 campaign, he accused Trump of “abandoning the Haitian people while the country’s political crisis is paralyzing that nation.” But critics here and in Washington alike say so far, Biden has done little different. His administration has continued to employ a Trump-era public health law that uses the coronavirus pandemic as a justification to deport Haitians back to a country many call a war zone.

After the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last July, initiatives to transition the country to a new government have stalled amid a fierce power struggle, aggravated by the pervasive gang violence. Haitian groups and international observers say the ongoing deportations are only adding to the instability and violence. So far more than 17,000 Haitians have been deported under Biden, straining limited resources amid food insecurity, a health care system “on the brink of collapse” in a country with the third lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the world, and a collapsed economy, according to a December letter signed by Amnesty International and seven other human rights groups protesting the deportations.

Read More: Caught Between U.S. Policies and Instability at Home, Haitian Migrants in Tijuana Are in a State of Limbo

Haitian-American activists and community leaders in Miami say they are frustrated with the apparent ambivalence toward the worsening crisis from leaders in both Tallahassee and Washington. They say they are tired of empty expressions of support from U.S. officials and exhortations about the need for “democratic elections” instead of concrete actions, like stemming the illegal flow of weapons from the U.S. that are arming the gangs, or changing longtime discriminatory immigration policies towards Haitians.

“If it were any other nation, Haiti would be on the news daily, when you consider a country where in many places children are not going to school, stores are closed, businesses close up every day, the streets are empty,” Bastien says. “This is a country under siege, yet you don’t read about it daily in the newspaper. And it’s right here. It’s 90 minutes from here.”

The leader of the "Pitit Desalin" party, Moise Jean Charles, rides a horse as Haitian protesters march through the streets to denounce the upsurge in kidnappings committed by gangs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on February 28, 2021.Reginald Louissaint—AFP/Getty Images

On July 7, world leaders reacted with shock when President Moïse was assassinated in the bedroom of his private residence by Colombian mercenaries.

“We are…saddened to hear of the horrific assassination of President Jovenel Moïse,” Biden said in a statement condemning the “heinous” act. “The United States offers condolences to the people of Haiti, and we stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti.” Two weeks later, Biden dispatched a presidential delegation to pay its respects at Moïse’s funeral in the city of Cap-Haïtien, and meet with Haitian officials behind the scenes to figure out what would come next. The delegation included the newly announced U.S. special envoy to the country, Daniel Foote.

Read More: 25 Years After ‘Operation Uphold Democracy,’ Oft-Forgotten U.S. Military Intervention Still Shapes Life in Haiti

A veteran career diplomat who had previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Haiti, Foote had been tasked with “facilitating long-term peace and stability and to support efforts to hold free and fair presidential and legislative elections,” State Department spokesman Ned Price announced on July 22. But he soon found himself in an impossible situation, he said in a recent interview with TIME. The U.S. had long ignored warnings that the political and security situation was unraveling under Moïse, who had been ruling by decree for a year by the time he was assassinated. Now, the Biden administration was pushing for democratic elections to take place later that year amid a rapidly deteriorating security situation. Haitian civil society organizations and international groups warned that rushing an election in that environment would be unrealistic, dangerous and ultimately ineffective.

“We don’t pay attention to the real conditions on the ground because don’t have a cadre of Haiti experts, and instead we keep backing and anointing people who we think serve our interests,” says Foote, who was in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and says he still has nightmares about it. “[The U.S.] doesn’t seem to really care about Haiti until there’s a humanitarian disaster on an unprecedented scale, but we’re looking at a slow motion one developing right in front of our very eyes.”

The U.S. has backed the interim government set up by Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who took over after Moïse’s assassination and has since postponed elections indefinitely and reportedly been linked to the main suspect in the plot. Foote thought Washington’s support was a mistake, reflective of previous U.S. foreign policy failures in the country propping up members of Haiti’s political elite they see as aligned with U.S. interests. “It was so clear that that guy has no mandate and Haiti has no future under him,” he says.

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As this political crisis was unfolding, thousands of Haitian migrants, many of them families with children, had been congregating at the U.S.-Mexico border. Some had made their way all the way from Chile and Brazil, where they had been since the 2010 earthquake. Earlier in 2021, the Biden Administration had allowed an increasing number of Haitian asylum seekers to enter the country. During the first seven months of his presidency, 92% of Haitian migrants — more than 24,700 people — had their asylum claims processed. In August, the Biden Administration had also extended temporary protected status to some undocumented Haitians living in the U.S.

These inconsistently applied border policies fueled rumors that spread quickly through word of mouth, messaging apps and social media. By September, with more than 14,000 Haitians camped under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, waiting to file their asylum claims, the Biden Administration decided to crack down to deter more Haitians from coming, launching an expulsion campaign. U.S. authorities used Title 42—a public health policy implemented by Trump, purportedly to stop the spread of COVID-19—to launch a large-scale deportation of Haitians from the U.S. before they could file asylum claims. In images widely broadcast around the world, U.S. border agents on horseback were shown herding Haitian migrants like cattle. These actions were condemned by legal experts and advocates who say the Biden Administration’s continued use of Title 42 violates both U.S. and international asylum law.

For Haitian-Americans, who had largely supported Biden when he ran on the promise of repealing Trump’s immigration policies, it felt like a betrayal. “That’s a hell of a ramp up,” says Nana Gyamfi, the Executive Director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a national advocacy group based in New York. “Joe Biden got down on his knees in (Miami’s) Little Haiti, and made promises about protecting people—not separating their families, not expelling them to a country that has been designated as too dangerous to deport people to. Every single one of those promises was broken,” she says. “This Administration has actually made the situation worse.”

Officials within the Biden Administration were divided on whether it was ethical to deport people back to dangerous, even deadly, circumstances. Foote, the envoy in Haiti, was firmly in the camp that it was not, but he felt he was not being listened to in Washington. On Sept. 22, two months after being appointed, Foote decided the best way to send a clear message would be to resign in protest of the “inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees.”

The Haitian government had just collapsed and could not provide for the basic needs or security of its people, he wrote in his resignation letter. The forced deportation of refugees would only “fuel further desperation and crime,” in turn triggering more migration to the U.S. (The State Department at the time refuted Foote’s characterization that his recommendations had been ignored, saying all proposals “were fully considered in a rigorous and transparent policy process.”)

Soon after his resignation, the cycle Foote described became visible in Florida. In November, a wooden sailboat carrying 63 Haitian migrants reached the Florida Keys, the first time in more than two years that such a large group made it around U.S. coast patrols. They told U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials they had spent more than three weeks at sea. Since then, more boats have made their way through the Florida Straits, including an overloaded, rickety vessel that landed in the Florida Keys in early January carrying 176 men, women and children.

Marleine Bastien
Marleine Bastien, Executive Director of the Family Action Network Movement (FAMM), speaks in Miami following the news that Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated on July 7, 2021.Lynne Sladky—AP

On Jan. 21, the latest high-level international meeting to determine Haiti’s future, this time hosted by Canada, ended with renewed calls for the dueling political factions — led by Henry and his political allies on one side, and a diverse coalition of civil society and political groups on the other — to reach a consensus. “We need the Haitian people to come together around a way forward, and the international community is focused on supporting that effort but not supplanting it,” a senior State Department official told reporters on a Jan. 21 press call after the meeting.

The summit came as Haitian and international observers warn there could be further violence on Feb. 7. That’s the date when the term of Moïse would have officially ended — and so should Henry’s interim term. But Henry has hit back against challenges to his legitimacy, declaring “there will not be a new president on February 7.”

“American, Canadian and French ambassadors [are] are all concerned about the potential for instability as we approach the February 7 date,” Russel Honore, a retired U.S. Army General who led the summit, told reporters after the conclave.

There is now broad agreement among both Haitian and international officials that holding elections will be impossible without a plan in place to handle the volatile security situation. “There needs to be adequate security for candidates to campaign, for parties to hold rallies, to have the provisional electoral council carry out their duties, and for voters to be able to safely go forth and cast their ballots,” a senior Administration official told reporters on a conference call after a virtual meeting with officials from Canada and Haiti.

Multiple proposals for transitional governments have been floated in recent months, including one championed by a coalition of civil society and prominent Haitian lawmakers to put in place a two-year transition known as the “Montana Accord.” It would include an interim president and prime minister elected by a 44-member transitional council that would work on a plan to rebuild government institutions. Henry has opposed it, pushing for his own deal which would keep him in power, despite the vacant presidency, until the next elections can be held. “Before the summer, Haiti will have a new Constitution…that allows us to hold elections,” he said on Jan. 25.

In the midst of all these roadblocks, it’s important to challenge the sense of fatalism that permeates every aspect of U.S. policy towards Haiti, says Dr. Marie Guerda Nicolas, a Haitian-American psychology professor at the University of Miami. This feeling only justifies the scant attention and political will focused on figuring out a way forward, says Nicolas, who has spent time in recent months in rural communities who took matters into their own hands to rebuild after the earthquake knowing there would be little help from the government in Port-au-Prince.

“When we talk about the whole entire country as if it’s hopeless and helpless, then it diminishes the work that these people are doing,” she says. “They wouldn’t work this hard if they didn’t believe that a new Haiti was possible. Yes, there are lots of challenges there, but at the same time, there’s a lot of capability and resilience.”

In Miami, a lot of the anger and frustration is being directed squarely at the Biden administration. Bastien’s center has struggled to keep up with the demand for mental health resources and case workers as the situation on the island has deteriorated further. Some clients have become more desperate and aggressive, leading the organization to look into hiring security guards for the first time in its 30-year history.

“What’s going on in Haiti is partly a result of bad U.S. foreign policies, of decades of supporting incompetent and corrupt leaders, and the U.S. is still contributing to creating worse conditions right now,” says Bastien. In meetings with State Department officials and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, she and other Haitian community leaders have emphasized the need for concrete commitments to quell the flow of U.S. arms and halt the deportations.

But with few results, she and other Haitian-American activists say some members of the community have gone as far as changing their voter registration from Democrat to independent. “I’ve never seen young Haitian-Americans so alert and engaged,” she says. “They see the truth: the most powerful nation in the world is not only taking very little action, but making things worse.”

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Write to Vera Bergengruen / MIAMI at vera.bergengruen@time.com