The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Testing the limits of morality with Haitian deportees

Asylum-seeking migrants from Haiti cross the Rio Bravo in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Dec. 27. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

There is a broad consensus among Americans that deportation is right in some cases — certainly when the deportees are dangerous criminals or represent a security threat. There are also circumstances in which mass deportation is deeply troubling. The ongoing case of U.S. deportations to Haiti is such an issue.

Haiti is a failed state whose dysfunction and suffering have spiraled. Its government is unelected, illegitimate and incapable of delivering basic services. Violent criminal gangs reign in the streets, paralyzing the economy and normal life. Kidnapping for ransom is the country’s only significant growth enterprise. Narcotraffickers and their allies at the highest levels of Haitian government and commerce are plausibly suspected as responsible for the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, in July.

Into this quagmire the Biden administration has been inserting more than 100 deportees per day, on average, for the past three months. Since Sept. 19, the U.S. government has expelled more than 15,000 Haitians on more than 110 flights. That’s roughly one flight on average per day full of people with little prospect of eking out a subsistence in a country where the majority is wallowing in misery. Last week alone, nearly 1,200 Haitians were deported, nearly 200 of them children, according to nongovernmental organizations that track the flights.

Think of it: The hemisphere’s wealthiest country, where nearly three-quarters of the adult population has received at least one coronavirus vaccination, is sending people at a record pace to the hemisphere’s poorest country, where about 1 percent of adults have gotten the shot.

As deportees arrive in Haiti from the United States, U.S. and other aid organizations have been downsizing their offices there. And no wonder: Delivering humanitarian assistance in Haiti has become highly dangerous in a country where major highways are cut or controlled by marauding gunmen.

Haitians, according to the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti, are “living in hell under the yoke of armed gangs. Rape, murders, thefts, armed attacks, kidnappings continue to be committed on a daily basis, with populations often left to fend for themselves in disadvantaged and marginalized neighborhoods.” The agency further acknowledged that its ability to monitor abuses is limited given the absence of basic security.

To its credit, the Biden administration has made more than 150,000 Haitians already in the United States eligible for temporary protected status, a government program that allows them to live and work legally here, for 18-month stints that may be renewed as long as the homeland security secretary continues to designate Haiti as unsafe. However, Haitians who are currently being deported have generally been turned around upon crossing the border, without being given an opportunity to apply for TPS or asylum.

That policy is designed to discourage further unauthorized border-crossing by Haitians. It’s politically defensible; Americans do not want to encourage a chaotic torrent of illegal immigration. Yet in the extraordinary case of Haiti, the limits of moral defensibility are tested by a policy that compounds the hardships of an anguished neighbor. That’s worth a policy review, to say the least.