Conference explores root causes of the US-Mexico border crisis

A Haitian man is seen in the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on Sept. 24. Photo: The Associated Press

By Maya Bell

A Haitian man is seen in the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on Sept. 24. Photo: The Associated Press

Conference explores root causes of the US-Mexico border crisis

By Maya Bell
Panelists will discuss the historical context, and possible solutions, for the ongoing crisis that brought thousands of Haitians from Latin America to the U.S.-Mexican border last month.

As Brazil prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 summer Olympic Games in the aftermath of Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake, South America’s largest nation welcomed thousands of Haitians who helped build the hydroelectric plants, stadiums, and other infrastructure needed for the global events. 

But, by 2015, with the Brazilian economy souring and unemployment soaring, Brazil began rolling up the welcome mat for roughly 90,000 Haitians who lost their work permits and gained the enmity of some Brazilians who blamed them for their own job losses. Chile wasn’t any kinder to the more than 170,000 Haitians who migrated there. In 2018, Brazil’s neighbor imposed new visa requirements that eliminated Haitians’ opportunities to work and reunite with their families. 

The dashed hopes, rising xenophobia, and continued economic and political upheaval that—exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—brought thousands of Haitian migrants from South America to Del Rio, Texas, last month will be the subject of a symposium hosted by the University of Miami on Thursday, Oct. 14, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. 

Open to the public, the virtual conference, “Haiti’s Systemic Crisis and Haitian Migrants at the US-Mexico Border” is designed to provide the broader, and not widely known, context for the shifting migration patterns of Haitians who left their homeland for South America—rather than North America—after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that killed more than 228,000 people. (Register to attend and view the agenda and participint bios.)

“At the beginning, the media, U.S. government officials, and others were talking about the border crisis as if it was something that just exploded, as if it was a new phenomenon that had happened during the previous few months,’’ said Louis Herns Marcelin, professor and director of the University’s Global Health Studies program and chancellor of the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED) in Haiti, who organized the conference with Lillian Manzor, associate professor of modern languages and literatures, and INURED coordinator Toni Cela, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology. “They didn’t pay attention to the root causes, to all the time it took to build up. That’s why this conference is important, to provide perspectives on what is happening—because this is not the end. It is the beginning,” he added. 

What did garner considerable attention—and public outrage—were photos of mounted U.S. Border Patrol guards chasing and grabbing Haitian migrants headed to the encampment that sprang up under the International Del Rio Bridge. The Biden administration quickly halted the horse patrols. But over the ensuing days, it emptied the camp of roughly 15,000 residents, the majority of them Haitians—many with children who were born in South America. At the time, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said about 5,000 of the migrants were placed in removal proceedings, about 8,000 voluntarily returned to Mexico, and about 2,000 were expelled to Haiti, where many had not lived for years. 

But Cela, who with Marcelin co-authored “Post-Earthquake Haitian Migration to Latin America,” an INURED report that lays the foundation for this week’s symposium, said even the forced repatriations are unlikely to stop the exodus from Haiti. As their report chronicles, the exodus began decades ago, with the U.S. intervention and support for Haiti’s dictatorial and repressive regimes. And it continued through numerous economic crises, ongoing political instability, and seven hurricanes in the six years that preceded the 2010 earthquake. Since then, Haiti has suffered an outbreak of cholera—introduced by United Nations peacekeepers—that killed 10,000 and infected more than 850,000 people and rising gang violence. And just this summer, the shocking assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, another earthquake, and a drenching tropical storm was added to the country’s list of woes. 

“There’s this misconception that people don’t want to live in Haiti, but we need to understand that the people who have left are put in a situation where they cannot remain there,” Cela said. “Everyone wants to live in their homeland, where their loved ones are, where they know the food, the culture, all the things that are familiar. So, we have to examine why people would trek more than 7,000 miles, through 10 or 11 countries, making themselves vulnerable to criminal activity and exploitation. It’s not that they don’t want to go home. They can’t go home.” 

The symposium is sponsored by the University’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, Global Health Studies, the Center for Global Black Studies, Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center, and several co-sponsors. It will include discussions with University experts, former Haitian government officials, human rights activists, and leaders of diaspora and community-based organizations about four general topics. They include Post-2010 Earthquake Migration in the Americas, Human Rights and Diaspora Organization Responses; U.S. Policy Towards Haiti and its Links to Past and Present Migratory Flows; Haiti’s Systemic Crisis and Responses of the Diaspora; and Representations of Haiti in the Global Press.