On January 12, 2010, a massive 7.0 earthquake hit just 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people, injuring another 300,000, and displacing over 1 million people who were forced to live in makeshift camps. Just two weeks after the earthquake, I was in Port-au-Prince with a medical relief team serving as a chaplain. We set up on the edge of a central part of the city were up to 600,000 people were living under stretched out bed sheets, baking in the sun, even in January. Mosquitos were everywhere. The relief response failed dramatically, and the suffering was beyond imagination.
The city seemed to have collapsed in on itself. Flattened buildings had strewn their rubble haphazardly into the streets. I saw groups of children aimlessly wandering through the capital. Aid organizations had begun to arrive, but were mostly concentrated around the airport at the time and doing little out with the people.
We set up a medical station across from the collapsed capitol building where we did triage, attended to minor wounds, and ferried the more significant injuries to the University of Miami field hospital. I saw the edge of a riot as a UN truck rolled through dispensing big bags of rice to the people. I later learned that a couple of people were trampled to death in the disorganized and chaotic food distribution.
The Haitian people we saw were beyond desperate. I was able to pray with hundreds of people over the course of that week, all expressing deep grief. As exhausted and afraid as they were, they would line up and wait for an hour in the sun just to be seen by a doctor and get some medicine and water.
I met one man who lost his wife, children, and extended family when their school fell in. He lost 14 family members in the earthquake, yet he volunteered to help us help others. That was happening all over Port-au-Prince in those days. Haitians came to us to help us help their people as we distributed our supplies. They hauled 50-pound bags of rice and beans and bottles of oil to distribute in the camps. The memory of the gratefulness and kindness of the people in the midst of mass destruction sticks with me to this day. And, as I returned to Haiti over and over again for the next 4 years to work with churches, I experienced their graciousness and hospitality each time.
This past week when I saw 12-15,000 Haitian migrants come to Del Rio on the Texas-Mexico border looking for asylum, I was at first shocked by the mass numbers—especially considering Del Rio is 2,000 miles from Port-au-Prince. And then I remembered that this was just one more result of the ongoing suffering of the Haitian people. The Haitian diaspora, exacerbated by the 2010 earthquake and subsequent political and natural catastrophes, has been going on for years, with approximately 1.8 million Haitians living outside of Haiti, including 705,000 in the United States. It has been widely reported that the Haitian migration route for thousands of men, women, and children has been from Haiti to South America, then up through the dangerous Darien Gap through the jungles of Panama and Central America to Mexico, and eventually the United States. I’ve been with Haitian migrant communities in Tijuana after thousands came there in 2016. When they couldn’t get through to the U.S., they stayed in the city and tried to make a life there. Many of them succeeded, but many more continue to struggle.
The Biden Administration’s plan is to fly the thousands of Haitian migrants back to Haiti—an expedited removal process under Title 42 of the United States Code which permits emergency measures to protect public health. Under such conditions, which the Trump administration declared soon after COVID arrived in the U.S., the government can send migrants back without the opportunity to claim asylum or wait in the U.S. for a hearing. Those flights have already begun and it is predicted that by the end of the week, all of the Haitian migrants will have been flown back to Haiti in one of the largest mass deportations in recent American history.
Whatever one thinks about who should come here or how many or how we let people in, there is one aspect of this tragedy that we should be clear about: The Haitians who come to our border seeking refuge have suffered beyond the imagination of most Americans. How we see and treat them says a great deal about the state of our own hearts and consciences.
Secure borders shouldn’t mean closed borders. We can make good, humane decisions about whom we allow to come based on need and merit. (At this point, how does turning away Haitians save the country from COVID?) Rejecting en masse thousands of people who come asking for help and looking for refuge creates even more desperation and tells the world that America has turned away from those in need. Seeing images of Customs and Border Protection agents on horseback swinging lariats at and pushing migrants back into the Rio Grande only adds to the impression that the American response is hard-heartedness towards the desperate and the vulnerable.
The challenge we face from growing global migration caused by political and economic disruption, climate change, war, violence, persecution of all kinds, and religious and ethnic discrimination, is to be firm about our security while not forsaking concern and compassion toward those in need. Compassion doesn’t mean chaos at border crossings, to be sure, and we must do all we can to keep that from happening. But it also doesn’t mean rejecting all legal asylum claims or seeing desperate migrants as invaders or animals to be herded up and pushed back into a river. Security and compassion can balance and must intertwine if we are to navigate the humanitarian crises that will and do repeatedly arise in our region. Part of meeting that challenge will be shifting from response to preparedness, so that we can meet migrants with compassion, whatever their legal status or final destination. The government had at least a month of warning. Was the response so harsh because a gentler one wasn’t prepared, and if not, why not?
As I saw images this week of desperate Haitian migrants, fathers carrying food to their families, women carrying babies, children crying, my mind immediately went back to the days after the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince when the same images were burned into my soul. Confronted by the idea that these could have been some of the same people, or at least that there is an unbroken stream of suffering from then to now, I can’t help but recognize the hopelessness of it all for them.
As a Christian, I’m reminded of Isaiah 58:7 that says true religion is to “share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter.” Our little church has taken up a collection to send to Haitian Christian friends in Haiti who will work to minister to those in need and, perhaps receive some of these back who have been deported from Del Rio. As we try to keep order and security at our border, let’s make sure that we don’t demonize those who desperately come to us looking for help. They are human beings made in the image of God. We should see their suffering as a humanitarian tragedy instead of a threat. And, when possible, especially as individuals and through churches and aid organizations, we must do what we can to help.