The disturbing images of Border Patrol agents on horseback attempting to block migrants from entering the United States, widely shared in September, tap a long history of heavy-handed U.S. immigration law enforcement policies. In a public lecture I delivered for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, a research center at Ohio State University, I described similarities in the decades-long approach toward Haitian migrants in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and in recent months. Even when U.S. asylum law clearly requires physical presence in the territorial United States to request asylum, U.S. immigration officials time and again try to keep hopeful asylum-seekers outside the country.
One point I draw out toward the end of the hour-long talk is about the cyclical nature of protection. Right now, Haitians and people from other parts of the world frequently request asylum in the United States. But that hasn’t always been the case. Tapping the fictional story of Seidel, a character in Anna Segher’s novel Transit, I describe those years in the twentieth century when Europe was convulsing, and Europeans were desperately trying to find safe harbor abroad.
In an essay for the Washington Post, historian Jesús Ruiz adds a more relevant comparison to the shifting nature of persecution and safety. In the nineteenth century, Ruiz writes, Haiti was itself the place of refuge for people fleeing the United States. After Haiti became the first free black nation in the Western Hemisphere in 1804 and the first to abolish slavery, it established a citizenship law that welcomed “Africans and Indians, and the descendants of their blood.” After one year of residence in the newly independent country, they were recognized as citizens. In the decades that followed, thousands of African Americans would leave the United States for a new life in Haiti.
Ryan Mann-Hamilton’s ancestors were among those who left the United States for Haiti in that period. Now an anthropologist at LaGuardia Community College, Mann-Hamilton description is common today if only in reverse: “The unknown was not enough to dissuade them in their quest for a better life than that available to Blacks in the United States,” Mann-Hamilton wrote in a chapter of the 2010 book The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. As recently as 2005, thousands of their descendants were thought to still live in a remote region of what is now the Dominican Republic.
“Because asylum has always evolved, I have no doubt that it will continue to do so,” I said during my Kirwan Institute lecture. With a better understanding of the past, perhaps it might better evolve to fit the needs of the present and the future.