In the 1990s, Haiti continued to suffer political conflict and violence. Also, the nation island suffered after President Bill Clinton implemented trade policies that essentially destroyed Haitian rice farming, exacerbating hunger. Clinton provided subsidies to U.S. rice farmers, enabling them to outcompete Haitian producers. He later issued a public apology stating: “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. ... I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice drop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did.”
After a 2010 earthquake that killed some 200,000 people, a United Nations peacekeeping camp played a role in a cholera outbreak that killed thousands of people.
Haiti has faced a series of natural disasters in recent years, along with political instability that’s deeply rooted in its colonial past and the international community’s undermining of Haitian institutions, Accilien said. Last month a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing 2,000 people and leaving thousands more injured or missing. The quake came a little more than a month after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, creating a power vacuum in which Haiti has no functioning legislature or head of state.
Many of the Haitians at the southern U.S. border are among the 250,000 who left their homeland after the devastating 2010 earthquake there and settled in Chile or Brazil. Both countries have suffered steep economic declines during the pandemic, sparking the current migration north. Human smugglers seized on the opportunity, Accilien said.
“All these governments just turn a blind eye,” she said. “But people are making money off these Haitian immigrants.”
The U.S. State Department is requesting that Chile, Brazil and other nations accept Haitian migrants who lived in those countries before journeying to the U.S. border.
Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the founding director of the City University of New York Haitian Studies Institute, believes the treatment of Haitians can be traced to the island nation’s slave rebellion that challenged racism. He argues the international community — especially the U.S. — never got over what the Haitian revolution represented.
“The masters of the capital system didn’t forgive and would never forgive Haiti for what it represented in modern history — the only successful anti-slavery revolution,” he said. “And without racism and slavery there is no United States of America. There is no empire.”
In the early 1980s, Bastien and thousands of other Haitians first arrived in the U.S., along with Cubans also fleeing political persecution and economic deprivation. The way she saw it, Cubans were given a “red-carpet treatment,” all but guaranteed to be able to apply for permanent residency once they reached the U.S.
At the same time, President Ronald Reagan ordered the detention of all Haitians without the possibility of bond. Reagan believed it would deter more would-be asylum-seekers.