World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United States of America : Haitians

Historical context

Haitian refugees have endured particular troubles in the 1980s and 1990s that set them apart from other black Americans.

Because Haitian governments historically have been sponsored by the United States, Haitians have seldom been accepted as refugees. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan authorized the US coastguard to intercept and repatriate Haitians encountered on the high seas en route to the USA as illegal immigrants. The screening process admitted only 0.1 per cent as legitimate asylum seekers. In 1991 Haitian advocates filed suit, challenging this process under the 1980 Refugee Act and international law. The suit was dismissed, but resulted in the screening process being moved to Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba.

In 1992, because of a false scare over high AIDS rates in Haiti, HIV testing was added to the screening process. Those found positive were held without procedure for release or repatriation. A further suit in 1992 challenged conditions in the Guantanamo Bay camp - where ill refugees were held without medical treatment or adequate nutrition - as well as the discrimination represented by the fact that non-Haitian applicants were not detained according to HIV status. In May 1992, President George Bush shut down the screening process and ordered all interdicted Haitians repatriated, in contravention of the Refugee Act.

When Bill Clinton was elected later that year, he promised to re-examine the case, as Haitian boat people continued to arrive in huge numbers. After a series of reversals on the issue, in 1994 he agreed to process Haitians like other asylum seekers, and sought to relieve immigration pressure instead through US military intervention against the illegitimate government of Haiti. Some Haitians returned home after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's reinstatement, while others applied to stay in the USA for economic reasons and out of fear of the continuing strength of military and terrorist forces in Haiti.

Haitians who fled their homeland because of opposition to the military junta have faced retribution from Haitian military-sponsored death squads operating in the USA. Despite appeals from the Haitian community, US officials have done little to investigate or prosecute offenders, and connections between these squads and the US Central Intelligence Agency have been exposed.

Some Haitians, like some Afro-Cubans, have also faced persecution for their practice of the Santeria faith, which involves ritual animal sacrifice. However, in 1993 the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling against Santeria practitioners saying that the government's legitimate concern for public health and animal welfare 'could be addressed by restrictions stopping far short of a flat prohibition of all Santeria practices'.

Current issues

Haitians have also been particularly affected by the under-scrutinized practices of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Even after the Guantanamo Bay refugee camps were closed, Haitians have been held in inadequate facilities in the USA with no clear indication of how long they would be detained. Some of these detention centres have been leased out to private contractors, who allowed conditions to degenerate to the point that riots ensued. Inmates of INS facilities have little legal recourse and are often inaccessible to friends, family and legal counsel.

In October 2004, the Haitian government formally requested that the United States grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians living in the USA to protect them from deportation to the disaster-ridden and impoverished country. In 2005 there were an estimated 2 million Haitians living in the US. The 2006 election of President René Préval in Haiti will undoubtedly affect the influx of Haitians to the US, and may facilitate the return of Haitians living in the US, though it is yet unclear to what extent.

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