Governing by trope: “Boat people” and Biden

Back in June, the Washington Post’s editorial board warned of a looming crisis in Haiti, and argued for a more “muscular” United States response. They wrote, “There is now a real prospect of full-blown anarchy, and resulting waves of boat people fleeing to safer shores. The United States, France, the United Nations, the OAS and other influential parties must act before that happens. Mr. Moïse must go, and be replaced in free and fair elections.” Since Jovenel Moise was assassinated, the Washington Post has continued to opine for an international intervention led by the United States, invoking once again the threat of “boat people.”  

Former Ambassador James Foley, doing his best Rudyard Kipling impression, also lifted up the spectre of boat people in the Atlantic, opining, “Because of its geographic proximity as much as its unique dysfunction, Haiti has a way of forcing itself to the top of the U.S. national-security agenda. Should endemic chaos turn into complete anarchy, sending Haitians in large numbers onto rickety boats heading toward Florida, the pressure on Washington to do something will become irresistible.”

The use of the phrase “boat people” stands in a long line of racist imagery that Gregory Lee places under the broader framework of the “inundation” metaphor. Lee’s original research focused on the use of words like “flood,” “pouring in,” and “waves” in media accounts of Chinese immigration in the 19th century, arguing that the phrases became key to popular discourse in the build up to the Chinese Exclusion Acts. “Boat people” follows from the same linguistic pedigree, utilized to describe and dehumanize refugees from Vietnam and later Haiti. 

In PRI’s The World, Jared Gayotte interviewed Lee: “It’s not a question of if it’s incorrect. It’s a question of how it reinforces an image of people, in this instance, immigrants or refugees, which can then be twisted and manipulated by people,” Lee says. “There is this whole set of words that just become banal and seem to be normal. We have to remember that it is a metaphor. People don’t flood, and people don’t flow. People migrate, they move, they arrive, they pass through, they travel.”

The fear of “boat people” coming in “waves” through the Florida Straights is a racist trope intended to scare people, especially policy makers. The Post editorial board understands what they are doing as they trumpet intervention into Haiti. To the extent it is effective, it follows from decades of immigration policies that treat Haitians as a containment problem.

Even if accuracy is not the point, it is worth noting that people are not leaving in the numbers these editorials want people to fear. Indeed, the number of Coast Guard interdictions of Haitians at sea has not increased this year. Even though Haiti has been in a political crisis, with a failing economy and increasing levels of violence since at least 2018, the number of Haitians interdicted at sea has actually declined. For example, according to Coast Guard News, 271 Haitian migrants were interdicted during the first 9 months or so of FY 2021 (between October 1, 2020 and June 10, 2021 – a rate that would lead to an estimated 360 arrested in FY 2021 if continued). This can be compared to 418 Haitians picked up during fiscal year 2020 and 932 in fiscal year 2019.  Almost 40% (110) of the FY 2021 year-to-date total were interdicted on one boat halted by the Coast Guard in December of 2020. 

Despite the low number of interdictions, Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas issued a clear warning a week after Moise’s assassination, “Any migrant intercepted at sea, regardless of their nationality, will not be permitted to enter the United States….Again, I repeat: do not risk your life attempting to enter the United States illegally. You will not come to the United States.” It is, of course, possible that the political crisis in Haiti will deepen, and that many more people will attempt to flee – some by sea. The Biden administration preemptively declaring that none will be admitted – even as the entire context of the statement makes clear it is political turmoil they are fleeing – is probably illegal. White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified that people interdicted at sea “will either be repatriated back to Haiti or, if they can demonstrate the need for humanitarian protection, resettled in another country.”

Haitian migration is not a crisis for the United States – not now, and not in the future. The crisis for Haitians is on the ground in Haiti, and the United States government has played a huge role in creating it. The United States also has a legal obligation to treat refugees humanely – and, I would think, a moral one when these refugees are fleeing crises we helped to create. Summary expulsions, forced repatriation, or forced removal to a third country all violate these obligations.

What Biden should be doing is halting all removals to Haiti. There was a deportation flght on July 6 – the day before Jovenel Moise’s assassination. That should be the last one. Biden also needs to bring an end to Title 42 expulsions. This Trump era policy has been roundly condemned for closing off avenues for seeking asylum. It is an aberration, and while no doubt a political challenge to do so in the current environment, must be ended!  Finally, the Biden administration redesignated Temporary Protected Status for Haitians in May – but has yet to actually post the new rules in the Federal Register, so no one is able to register. The designation date of May 21, 2021 for TPS also needs to be moved forward so that those who have arrived more recently can qualify.

Raising the specter of tens of thousands of “boat people” landing on south Florida beaches is, at best, a mis-reading of historical events, at worst, racist-fear mongering. There are constructive, humane policy choices to be made. Biden claimed to want to turn the page on historic abuses of immigrants. Now would be the time to do that. 

***UPDATE: The Biden administration finally published the Federal Register notice for Temporary Protected Status for Haitians on July 30 – and extended the redesignation date to July 29, 2021 – meaning that anyone from Haiti who was in the United States on or before July 29, 2021 can apply for Temporary Protected Status. This is great news!

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