Kerry Kennedy: Joe Biden must put his Catholic faith into action and stop deporting Haitian asylum seekers

Recently I went to the border community of Del Rio, Tex., with Guerline Jozef, founder of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, and witnessed the appalling human rights abuses perpetrated by the United States government against destitute and resourceful migrants.

I saw tents made of bamboo poles and cardboard, sheathed in old skirts and T-shirts. I saw fathers holding infants, mothers cradling toddlers, and women and men who risked everything because of their belief in the promise and compassion of our great country. But these families were met not by the love and humanism that is the best of America, but by a phalanx of guards, guns and gargantuan SUVs—some emblazoned with white supremacist insignia.

As a human rights activist and lawyer, I have been working in solidarity with Haitians and the broader Haitian community since 1977. Over these decades, I have witnessed the unimaginable and devastating toll U.S. foreign policy has exacted on the people of Haiti.

What I witnessed in Del Rio is yet one more extension of decades of racist U.S. policy. Vulnerable migrant families, mainly Haitian asylum seekers, remain trapped in situations without access to critically needed humanitarian relief and legal aid.

What I witnessed in Del Rio is yet one more extension of decades of racist U.S. policy.

In acts of courage and pure desperation, Haitians made the dangerous journey to our border with Mexico, fleeing a devastating combination of natural disasters and political instability. They are seeking the protection they are entitled to as asylum seekers under U.S. and international law—and yet have been subjected to unspeakable violence and discrimination at every step of the way. Most shamefully, they have suffered horrific acts of racism at the hands of U.S. border agents, including assaults by Border Patrol agents on horseback. One could not help but think about the dogs and hoses unleashed on civil rights protestors in the South in the 1960s.

The U.S. government seeks to empty the Del Rio camp in the coming days, rapidly deporting as many people and families as possible, including those who have witnessed or experienced the abuse by law enforcement that is currently under investigation.

The Biden administration must act now to end these atrocities at our border and live up to the values they profess, starting by immediately halting all deportations to Haiti, which is still reeling from a presidential assassination, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake and another in a series of powerful tropical storms. (Currently, the U.S. State Department warns against visiting the country, stating, “Do not travel to Haiti due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19,” placing it in the same category as Afghanistan, North Korea and Yemen.) The mass expulsions of Haitians and other Black asylum seekers and refugees violate the prohibition against non-refoulement—a principle of international and U.S. refugee law that prohibits any form of return where an individual’s safety or freedom remains at imminent risk.

The Biden administration must act now to end these atrocities at our border and live up to the values they profess, starting by immediately halting all deportations to Haiti.

The Biden administration must ensure that all people currently trapped at the Del Rio camp are provided full access to both humanitarian aid, including shelter, clothing, food and water, and culturally competent legal services, including “know your rights” information.

The administration must also immediately rescind the Trump administration’s draconian Title 42, a policy advocated by presidential aide Stephen Miller that was clearly invoked to illegally turn away individuals seeking asylum under the guise of a “public health” mandate. In fact, there has been no Covid health emergency at Del Rio, and using Title 42 to expel asylum seekers there is unlawful.

We must welcome all asylum seekers through an equitable process that upholds the human and civil rights of those seeking protection.

In order to realign ourselves with foundational principles of international humanitarian and U.S. law, we must welcome all asylum seekers through an equitable process that upholds the human and civil rights of those seeking protection. In the meantime, the administration must use a humanitarian parole system to allow people in danger at the border to enter the United States while they pursue their legal claims for protection.

What would happen to our country if we actually treated people with dignity and respect? Think about the tenacity of a person who survived the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the trauma it caused and managed to make her way, perhaps with children and maybe a husband, to a country in Latin America—Peru or Brazil or Panama. She managed to get a job and survive. Then, hearing she might be reunited with family members already established in the United States, she figured out how to get herself all the way to the bridge at Del Rio. Would our country benefit from having that person—with her determination, gumption, survival skills and resiliency—in our communities, supporting our schools and making our country stronger, fairer and more generous?

As our nation’s second Catholic president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. has brought a faith-based equity agenda to the White House. He frequently invokes memories from his Catholic education at Holy Rosary Elementary in Claymont, Del., writing in a column for Religion News Service in 2019 that “the nuns there taught us reading, writing, math and history—as well as core concepts of decency, fair play and virtue. They took as a starting point the teaching from the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

The church celebrated its 107th edition of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees on Sept. 29, and it is time for the the president, and all of us, to draw upon its lessons and heed Pope Francis’ words, to “talk together, without prejudice and without fear, drawing near to the most vulnerable: migrants, refugees, displaced persons, victims of human trafficking, and the abandoned.”

It is then, and only then, that our nation will truly be able to Build Back Better.

[Related, from 2019: Kerry Kennedy on the chaos and cruelty at the U.S.-Mexico border]