Originally: Conference on Haitian Migration Crisis

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

It is a privilege to be part of this important Conference on the Current Haitian Migration Crisis, and I commend Church World Service, the Conference Planning Committee, and all the others who are here today for their impressive leadership on this very important issue.

As the American author Herbert Gold once wrote, “In Haiti all the important things are beautiful; only reality needs a bit of improvement.”    Tragically, the people of Haiti have struggled through generations of poverty, violence, civil strife, and appalling health conditions.

In communities across Haiti, thousands live without adequate shelter, electricity or sanitation, and only a quarter of the population have access to clean water.  Hunger and sickness are too often a way of life for the Haitian people.     

But as we all know, it is not harsh economic conditions alone that oppress the Haitian people.   Violence and oppressive governments have beleaguered the island nation for centuries.

Sadly, Haiti’s independence in 1804, was followed by a succession of brutal and corrupt leaders.  Chronic instability and politically-motivated violence have plagued the Haitian people and held them hostage for far too long.

The Duvalier regimes were among the most repressive governments, and the series of military governments that followed, have continued the oppression.

When Haiti elected its first democratic president in 1990, we had a great hope for economic and political stability and respect for basic rights.   But even Aristide has failed to bring in a new era of peace and prosperity.

Instead, we have seen escalating political violence.  Illegal arrests, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, killings, crackdowns on political opponents, and restraints on free speech and free assembly are all too common.  In the last six months, we have seen new waves of violence, targeting journalists, students, human rights activists, and the government’s political opponents.  Those who commit these harsh acts of brutality and intolerance often operate with impunity, and in some cases, they appear to be acting with government support.

Over a century ago, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was America’s Ambassador to Haiti in the 1890s, spoke eloquently about the island’s squandered potential.  He said this about Haiti:

“No other land has brighter skies. No other land has purer water, richer soil. She has all the natural conditions essential to a noble, prosperous and happy country. Yet, there she is, torn and rent by revolutions; by clamorous factions–floundering her life away year after year in a labyrinth of social misery.”

It’s no wonder that Haitian men, women, and children will do anything–even risk their lives–to escape this misery, as we saw so heartbreakingly on a beach in Florida last October.  Their plight is all the more disturbing, because we know that many of these refugees in need will be sent back to Haiti because of a policy implemented by our own Department of Justice.   Can anyone call this “justice?”  Perhaps that’s what they mean by affirmative action.

A year ago, the Department implemented a policy that subjects Haitian asylum seekers to mandatory detention upon arrival to the U.S.  Asylum seekers from other nations were eligible for release while they pursue their asylum claims, but not those from Haiti.  In response to criticisms that its policy was discriminatory, the Department announced that it would detain all foreign nationals arriving by boat, regardless of nationality.  But in practice, the policy still unfairly singles out Haitians for harsher treatment, since the overwhelming majority of them are Haitian. 

Further aggravating the discrimination, detention cases involving Haitians were placed on an accelerated court schedule.  In many instances, they were given only a week to prepare their cases, and had little or no opportunity to obtain the assistance of an attorney.  As violence continues in Haiti, these cases have literally life and death consequences.  Haitian refugees deserve to be treated fairly.  Anything less is a mockery of the ideals of America and our commitment to protect the persecuted from harm.

In 1961, Robert Kennedy said : 

“We know that it is the law which enables men to live together, that creates order out of chaos.  We know that law is the glue that holds civilization together.  And we know that if one man’s rights are denied, the rights of all are endangered.”

The current situation is intolerable.  The bigotry is blatant.  The rights of Haitian men, women, and children are being denied every day.  Mandatory detention and arbitrary hearings are contrary to our country’s basic principles.  And in the world today, by failing to protect innocent Haitians desperately fleeing persecution, we are failing in our responsibility to the world community, at the very time when we can least afford to jeopardize or lose the respect of other nations.  Thank you very much.