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A Reflection on Haitian Immigration by We Who Are Dark

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton, Carla Jackie Sampson, Boris E. Ricks and Brian Corpening
October 17, 2021

A philosophical discussion recently arose among colleagues about the Haitian asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. As Black intellectuals, we drew upon W. E. B. DuBois’ supposition that, “We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans cannot,” to ponder the necessity of equity for Haitians in United States immigration policies. What follows forms the basis of why we believe the United States should create more equitable and just immigration policies, particularly for Haitian asylum seekers.

Race and Public Policy

The United States is a highly-racialized society with seemingly entrenched equities that reveal differential lived experiences and realities for different groups. From being treated as chattel, counted as three-fifths of a person and excluded from social programs (e.g., GI Bill, Social Security, redlining under the New Deal), the burden of race has real social and political consequences for Black Americans. Decades of inequities have contributed to a social caste system where economic and social mobility are not so easily achievable for all groups, equally. Race matters in immigration policy since historic and contemporary immigration policies have proven to be anything but race neutral. This was evident in the decades-long, “Wet Foot, Dry Foot,” policy that allowed Cubans who made it to the United States to be fast tracked to citizenship. In essence, the treatment of Cubans (64% white country) was different from the treatment of Haitians (95% Black country), both of which were under oppressive regimes.

The Haitian Problem

While Haiti’s location on the island of Hispaniola makes it vulnerable to natural disasters, that’s only one aspect of the problem. Haiti not only shares a border with the Dominican Republic but also a troubled past and ongoing issues, which recently prompted the Dominican Republic to build a border fence. For decades, Haitians have struggled under strained infrastructure, economic uncertainty, political instability and corruption, failed and controversial humanitarian efforts and widespread displacement. A history of misappropriated funds and relief supplies has also contributed to reluctance by potential backers who could potentially offer relief.

The arrival of Haitian asylees at the southern border was decades in the making. After the 2010 earthquake, thousands of Haitians began making the arduous journey through South America. Facing stricter immigration policies under President Sebastián Piñera, those who sought asylum in Chile recently began fleeing north only to find more stringent immigration policies under Title 42, which closed land borders and holding facilities due to public health concerns during the pandemic. There has also been some confusion and misinformation about how United States immigration policies would change under the Biden Administration.

This year has been particularly challenging for Haitians, who endured a 7.2-magnitude earthquake, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, and long-standing social and political unrest. Haiti represents a unique humanitarian case with asylum seekers fleeing the confluence of social, economic, political and environmental turmoil. Some of the instability can be linked to the burden created by the estimated $21 billion extorted by France as reparations for Haitian independence.

US-Haiti Relations

Haiti has a complicated history with the US that includes freed Haitians fighting alongside Americans in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the nervousness southern slaveholders experienced because of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the confiscation of Haiti’s gold reserves by America (1914) and the subsequent occupation of Haiti by American forces (1915-1934). For centuries, Haiti has been marred by economic and political interference by powerful countries, including the United States, France, Germany and Britain. Today, the United States has the largest population of Haitian émigrés and extends considerable financial and other aid to Haiti. Yet, there is a complexity to the Haiti-United States relationship; there is a prevailing worldview that countries, predominantly inhabited by dark-skinned people, are somehow inferior to the standards set by western civilization.

Reimaging United States Immigration Policy

As a nation of immigrants, we must be brave enough to own up to our history and grapple with the complex realities that race and racism produce. The way forward is envisioning a society where we can honor all people, including Haitians and the role they have played historically and contemporarily in the making of America. Despite the political controversy surrounding critical race theory (CRT), it provides a good starting point for discussing how race intersects with public policy. CRT forces us to examine non-dominant ways of thinking and challenges us to grapple with historic racial realities and their enduring effects. Without intentional efforts to address the various levels of racism, inequities will persist. Exposure to CRT could broaden the worldview of Americans and policymakers, who far too often fail to understand counternarratives and how United States public policy is dominated by white, male, heteronormative affluent perspectives.

Our ability to reshape our immigration policies begins with our willingness to understand underlying values and motivations of asylum seekers and those developing and enacting public policies. We must acknowledge that bias exists within our public institutions and generate learning experiences that advance counternarratives and reject dominant paradigms. This new humane approach is necessary to move us towards a more equitable and just immigration system, for ALL, including, “We who are dark.”


Vanessa Lopez-Littleton, Ph.D., RN, is an Associate Professor at California State University, Monterey Bay and Chair of the Health, Human Services, and Public Policy Department. Her research interests include social determinants of health, racial equity, and organizational behavior. She may be reached at [email protected], DrVLoLil.Com or @DrVLoLil

Carla Jackie Sampson, Ph.D., MBA, FACHE, is a Clinical Associate Professor and Director of the Health Policy and Management Program and online Master of Health Administration Program, co-director of the Master of Health Law and Strategy at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Her research interests include healthcare workforce policy, social determinants of health, and anchor mission strategy development. She may be reached at [email protected] or @ProfessorSamps1

Boris E. Ricks, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Political Science Department and Co-Director of the Center for Southern California Studies at California State University, Northridge. Dr. Ricks is a broadly trained Political Scientist with specializations in Racial Politics, Urban Affairs, State & Local Government, Public Administration, and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. He can be reached at [email protected]

Brian Corpening, Ph.D., is the Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence, Chief Diversity Officer at California State University, Monterey Bay. Throughout his career he has focused on the development of community and its role and impact on the effectiveness of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at colleges and universities. He can be reached at [email protected]

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