I am a Haitian American. Brutality at border nothing new. My success is part of deception.
I came to America years ago as a child. Now I struggle to contain my tears as I watch the violence inflicted on Haitians. My success is deceptive.
Mine is not an easy story to tell. I have been crying for days as I've watched history repeat itself at the border. I try to process emotions that are as complex as my identity – Haitian, Black, immigrant, woman, mother, daughter.
Throughout my childhood, my mother repeated the narrative of our journey from Haiti to America countless times: how her father vanished, presumed murdered by the Duvalier regime; how my father maneuvered to sponsor our visas and scraped together money for our plane tickets; how my mother made the journey to a foreign country where she knew no one with two toddlers in tow. We weren’t fleeing political persecution, although our country was rife with that plague. But our plight was still dire. We were pleading for a reprieve from poverty, for relief from hunger and hopelessness.
And we had immigrated to the United States the “right way,” as American politicians and immigration agents insist. They flippantly refer to the arduous and excruciating “alien” registration process with no understanding of its deliberately invincible obstacles. The route to legal immigration is barricaded by stacks of complex and undecipherable application forms atop impossible-to-find documentation to prove our existence. It is mired with the condescension of U.S. Embassy examiners, the irrepressible disdain of racist officials and the insult of rejection. After many failed attempts at seeking entry via normal channels, after being turned away from the golden gates by doing things the “right way,” my people risk their lives on more dangerous routes to America.
We ride, walk and run from south to north over the boundaries of numerous countries, carefully stepping over the corpses of those who died en route, hacking our way through dense jungle toward freedom. This story should seem as familiar as the recent images from Del Rio, Texas – lawmen on horseback with reins in tight fists chasing down Black people. This can’t be. Hunters of Black bodies? Authorities reminiscent of slave catchers pushing us back down south under threat? Sun-burned white men tricking us onto vessels in a language we cannot understand? In 2021? In America?
Today, scenes from the days of slavery play out, except this time, my people are being forced back, “repatriated,” to an uninhabitable home that historically speaking was never home. Haiti had always been a place where Africans were brought as chattel to increase the wealth of Europeans. We have never been forgiven for daring to deem ourselves human by having freed ourselves from slavery in 1804.
The French forced us to pay reparations to them for lost property – labor and land. Starting in 1915 (and lasting for nearly two decades), the United States used Haiti's financial debt as an excuse to occupy the country. The American government continued to puppeteer equally avaricious Haitian leaders too power-drunk to see that the real prize in America’s eyes was Cuba. Cubans are still the preferred (but also exploited) immigrants. That’s a story for another time and another voice.
I understand the tragedy of what is happening to my people in this moment because of who I am:
As a Haitian, I have experienced firsthand the xenophobia of Americans who, in the 1980s, falsely accused us of being the originators and proliferators of HIV/AIDS. Concurrently, we were tagged as “boat people.” We had fled Haiti en masse before Del Rio. We came in out-of-gas motorboats with smoking engines that were more like rickety rafts. We had stumbled from these out of breath, spitting up salt water, indifferent to how we would be labeled as long as we were here.
As a Black person, I tensed my body and tried to steel myself as news reports kept count of the blows and the bullets that pummeled and felled brutalized Black men – Rodney King, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo.
In early 2020, as a Black woman, I waited for the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor to be arrested.
Still reeling from that injustice, I wept with millions of other terrified Black mothers for my Black sons as I watched the murder of George Floyd. The unhealed wounds of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Ahmaud Arbery’s killings were still fresh all over my body, heart and mind.
A year after Arbery was killed, my Haitian people were once again under threat. First the assassination of Haiti’s president, then the 7.2 magnitude earthquake and then my people squatting in squalor under a Texas bridge.
While some Haitians splashed about in the Rio Grande to escape the whips euphemized as “long reins,” others excitedly boarded shuttle buses carrying them to waiting airplanes that they likely assume will be taking them one step closer to freedom. Once again, we are the victims of deceit and denial.
As one who has been held up as an example of what is possible in America, I feel complicit in the deception. My people – Haitians, African Americans and other Black immigrants to America – have been lied to. I am not evidence of the possibility of the American dream. My immigrant success story of the hard-working daughter of Haiti who made it to and in America is a fiction. It is the rarely achieved carrot that is dangled and then withdrawn.
My people risk their lives, making long treks over dangerous terrain, chasing what seems within reach. Their toes have even touched the promised land. Freedom is just a few steps away. But so are the border agents and planes that will take them back.
Back to where? Back to political strife, gang violence, harm, hunger, heartbreak and hopelessness? Where will they live? The ruins of the most recent earthquake? The tent cities that have persisted since the last damaging quake? Going home only to be homeless. Going back to all of the things I was fortunate enough to have escaped.
The sad truth is, I have not escaped. I am with my people. Trapped in a time loop. Doomed to relive the most tragic, traumatic parts of our history.
Ours is not, has never been and will never be an easy story to tell. But I will try to tell our truth.