The Haitians at Del Rio
Over one weekend, some 15,000 people, mainly Haitians, suddenly appeared at the Mexican border of the US, wanting to come in. They fled Haiti because Haiti is broken down. Its resources are meager and mismanaged. Its political culture is corrupt; its government, dysfunctional. Its last democratically elected president, Jovenel Moïse, was mysteriously assassinated, possibly by a clique of private outside adventurers. He left Haitian government in a precarious position, for he had been hollowing out and disabling its already puny civic institutions. Haiti is a Somalia in the making, where utter lawlessness could follow a decline in stable control.
Extreme weather plagues Haiti. A colossal earthquake recently shook the country, which has long been the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Nothing relieves the people there, despite perennial international efforts, including the infusion of massive amounts of cash, food, and other forms of humanitarian aid. Haiti is a nation state that doesn’t deliver what its people need. To an alarming extent, Haiti’s problems are representative of many of the world’s nations, where poor governance, corruption, chronic violence, and extreme weather threaten the safety and survival of citizenry.
In olden times, misery made Haiti a pressure cooker of change. Its history is as heartbreaking as any country’s. In the 17th century, the French colonized Haiti. French masters sent enslaved Africans to work sugar plantations there under pestilential conditions, knowing that the majority would have brief lives. The terrifying violence and brutality of the slaves’ captivity is poignantly captured in their spiritual art. Eventually, their misery bore fruit, for, in 1804, the slaves revolted and became self-governing. They fomented a remarkable revolution, rebuking France and casting off oppression for the sake of personal freedom and political autonomy. Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s 11.26 million inhabitants today descend from those once-captive slaves.
Now, however, the Haitians can flee rather than remake the oppression and misery besetting them again. Modern communications and the ease of movement have led to swelling migration around the globe. It’s hard to create a healthy democracy and the rule of law where they’ve ceased to exist, harder still to build a prosperous economy where the necessary cultural capital has always been wanting. So, though Haitians already live in a democracy, some are flooding toward where its blessings are in fuller flower, leaving Haiti itself even more hopeless than before. Because, why flee overland to the US? Failing as citizens, Haitians want to live in a polity where the living is good.
So they have undertaken a harrowing, roundabout journey across Mexico, over water and mountains, leaving everything familiar to huddle together under the Del Rio International Bridge, which normally admits travelers into the US via south Texas. Given the abnormal flood of migrants, most of whom have no hope of legal entry, the border crossing at Del Rio has been completely closed. Journalists report that the Haitians will be flown back to their country at US government expense.
I feel for the Haitians who made this journey. If I were in their place, I might consider leaving Haiti, too. The fact that they are from a democratic country, though, and that people all over the world are now fleeing pseudo-democracies where repression, exploitation, and corruption are flourishing, gives me pause. The tendency of many journalists to depict these hapless citizens as childlike and powerless victims is dangerously patronizing and retrograde. When should the people of Haiti be regarded as accountable for the terribly low outcomes from their country’s “democratic experiment?” When will the US get its act together, put aside its vanity, and restore order at the border by promulgating a set of new, Congressionally approved immigration laws?
To be in a reactive position with respect to immigration and border control exposes the “both ways” dithering that is impairing the prestige of the democratic form. Common sense and realism must temper compassion in crafting a rationale for augmenting the current population mix of the US. Global instability is increasing, requiring the US to temper boundlessness with a regard for its own political vulnerability.
Human migration is destined to swell, particularly as extreme weather events make barely habitable places like Haiti even more uninhabitable. The US must meet the new forces driving human migration with something more than ad hoc executive orders, fuzzy feelings, vice-presidential sound-bites, and so-called media “campaigns.” The circumstances under which non-citizens may enter the US and the procedures they must follow should be clear, universally broadcast, and incontrovertible. Paradoxically, the firmness with which such boundaries are drawn may redound to the long-term health of other democracies.
Image: Crouching figure (detail) from
“Voudou: The Art of Haiti” at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.
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