Exclusive: Hundreds of Rights Leaders Demand U.S. End Haiti Deportations

Hundreds of human rights and racial justice leaders have signed a letter to the Trump administration demanding that the U.S. immediately halt deportations of Haitians amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Signed by more than 300 human rights and racial justice leaders, including Black Live Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, Reverend Jesse Jackson, author Ibram X. Kendi and celebrity activists Danny Glover, Rainn Wilson and Susan Sarandon, the letter warns that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency's deportation flights risk wreaking havoc on Haiti's healthcare system.

"Deportations export COVID-19 throughout the region and put countless
lives at risk," states the letter, which was sent on Friday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Michele Sison.

Already in Haiti, it says, "the current COVID-19 reported incidence is spiraling out of control, and the true infection numbers are far higher, creating a situation where the capacity in Haiti's health system to respond to COVID-19 cases is already at its limit."

Haitians Deported
Haitians arrive in Port-au-Prince, after a deportation flight from the United States on May 26, 2020. Sabin Johnson/Anadolu Agency/Getty

With Doctors Without Borders having deemed Haiti's medical system as being "on the brink of collapse" as the country struggles to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake and a subsequent nearly decade-long cholera epidemic, the letter warns that "an ongoing surge of infection could destroy an already weak economy and exacerbate political instability."

As of Friday, Haiti had nearly 4,916 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with the country seeing 84 deaths related to COVID-19 according to an online tracker maintained by the Johns Hopkins University.

While those numbers pale in comparison to the 2,191,200 confirmed cases in the U.S., where 118,435 people had died as of Friday after contracting the virus, the human rights activists warn that Haiti's healthcare system and economy is not equipped to handle the impacts of the outbreak.

If the U.S. continues to facilitate deportation to Haiti, they warn, the impacts of the pandemic could effectively "perpetuate the cycle of migration to the United States, as Haitians desperate for work, security and survival will be forced to leave Haiti."

"We respectfully ask that your offices immediately halt deportations to Haiti during the COVID-19 pandemic," the letter states. "There is simply no safe way to deport persons; deportations risk the consequent spread of this highly contagious and deadly disease in receiving nations, both among COVID-19 negative passengers traveling with COVID-19 positive ones, as well as people on the ground in Haiti."

This is not the first time that the Trump administration has been called on to end deportations to Haiti amid the pandemic.

In May, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanded that the government halt deportations to Haiti in a letter similarly addressed to Wolf.

In his letter, Markey cited reports of several cases in which individuals had been deported to Haiti and tested positive for coronavirus after their arrival. While ICE checks for symptoms of coronavirus prior to deporting detainees, symptoms of the virus can take days to appear. Further, if at least one individual is infected on a deportation flight, it is possible that other deportees could be infected during the deportation process.

"I urge you to heed the warnings of many humanitarian advocates and medical experts and make the sound choice—and the moral choice—to halt needless deportations to Haiti and other nations during this pandemic," Markey wrote in his May 18 letter. "Every COVID-19 case introduced to Haiti and similarly situated countries could leave an exponentially expanding wake of suffering."

It is unclear exactly how many people have been deported to Haiti by ICE since the pandemic started.

In a statement sent to Newsweek on Thursday, an ICE spokesperson said the agency had completed six removal flights to Haiti since March 13, the day that President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic.

The spokesperson did not say how many people were aboard each flight, but confirmed 99 Haitians had been tested for coronavirus. Of that number, two people tested positive. ICE is currently unable to test all detainees for coronavirus before deportation, they explained, due to a lack of testing kits.

"ICE has acquired approximately 2,000 tests per month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to screen aliens in its care and custody," the spokesperson explained. "Given the amount of tests ICE receives monthly, the agency has not had enough to test all aliens scheduled for monthly removals; therefore, under such scenarios, ICE has been testing a sample of the population and has provided the respective foreign government with results."

Asked again how many people were on board the six flights that have departed to Haiti since March 13, ICE did not immediately respond.

Nicole Phillips, the legal director at Haitian Bridge Alliance, which helped coordinate the new letter to the Trump administration, said she was aware of the six deportation flights landing in Haiti since mid-March. Some of those flights had as many as 30 people, some had as many as 50, while at least one had around 100 passengers, she said.

Phillips said the Haitian Bridge Alliance was further aware of at least eight cases in which passengers had tested positive for coronavirus shortly after arriving in Haiti. However, she said determining the true number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving from the U.S. is difficult, as the Haitian government has so far refused to release that data.

Even if ICE checks for symptoms of coronavirus among detainees before deportation, carriers of coronavirus can be asymptomatic. Furthermore, symptoms can take days to appear.

Given that as of Friday morning, there were at least 907 confirmed cases of coronavirus in ICE facilities across the U.S., advocates have warned that it is still too much of a risk to be deporting detainees to Haiti.

The letter sent to government officials on Friday was delivered in solidarity with global protests unfolding as part of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd's death, BLM co-founder Opal Tometi and Rev. Jesse Jackson told Newsweek.

While the U.S. has been deporting immigrants to a number of countries around the world amid the pandemic, Tometi said deporting Haitians from a country with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases to a nation struggling with its healthcare infrastructure is "shameful."

Tometi said she wanted to take action after learning about the ongoing deportations from immigrant rights activist and Haitian leader, Guerline Jozef of Haitian Bridge Alliance. "It's unconscionable that in the midst of a global pandemic that the US would be deporting anyone, let alone people to a nation we know is struggling with their own healthcare infrastructure. It's shameful and unjust."

Jozef told Newsweek that in Haiti, widespread fears of the spread of COVID-19 have also led to some of the few COVID-19 treatment centers in the country being burned down, while medical professionals have also been threatened.

"People do not want this disease to come to their communities because they know that this will most likely mean death due to lack of adequate response from the Haitian government and the fragile health care system," Jozef said.

"It is in this context that Haiti receives deportation flights from the United States, which as the sign-on letter states, include people who have tested positive with COVID-19.

"From the conversations Haitian Bridge Alliance is having with people who have been deported, they are afraid of exposure on the deportation flights and in quarantine in Haiti. They are also afraid of the stigma attached to deportees during the COVID-19 pandemic," Jozef explained.

"They generally do not want anyone to know that they were recently deported because of the possibility that they and their families will be targeted with threats."

Opal Tometi
Jesse Jackson
BLM Co-Founder Opal Tometi (L) and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

For both Tometi and Jackson, the deportations are also part and parcel of the "anti-black racism" that "is the central reason that Haitians are treated with such disdain in the U.S. and throughout the Western Hemisphere."

"As with all institutions that constitute the prison industrial complex, ICE is part and parcel to the ways it promotes systemic racism in the U.S.," Tometi said. "We can see how acutely this system impacts Black immigrants. Our communities bear the brunt of mass criminalization. Racism and immigration status makes it particularly difficult for Black immigrants to get the respect they deserve."

As calls grow for police departments in the U.S. to be defunded in the wake of Floyd's death—which saw the 46-year-old black man die after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds in an arrest over a $20 counterfeit note—Jackson said the focus should also be on agencies like ICE.

"ICE is an extension of the same racial ideology too prevalent in America's police departments," he said. "They don't see people of color as equal human beings but as an alien invading force that must be cleaned out of the U.S. Many of the same tactics used by law enforcement in America also apply for immigrants.

"For example, due to over-policing of black communities where black immigrants reside, black immigrants are more likely to end up in the criminal industrial prison system. After they finish their sentence, they are transferred to ICE to be deported. It is the same system that has oppressed and suppressed black people in this country for over 400 years."

Jackson said he believes that racism has long played a role in the U.S.'s policies affecting countries like Haiti. "It is the poorest nation in our hemisphere so both America's ideology of class and caste impact Haiti negatively," he said.

However, Jackson asserted: "When looking at why Haiti is so poor, you have to look to America's failure to recognize Haiti as a nation until 1862, 58 years after it declared independence because they abolished slavery and America had not. You also have to look at America's military occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, and support of numerous dictators. America's policy against Haiti has been one of racist control from the beginning."

Trump's leadership, Jackson said, has likely only deepened existing negative feelings towards Haitians after the president allegedly referred to Haiti as a "shithole" country.

"What a U.S. President says about another country has a positive or negative impact on how the average American views that country," he said. "President Trump's negative views of black African countries and other countries of color have definitely had a negative impact on American's views and America's policies toward those countries. Those views and actions didn't start with Donald Trump but they have escalated under Donald Trump.

"When you attach negative connotations to a group of people, this continues the divide and subjugate people to inhuman treatments. In calling Haitians and other African countries 'shithole countries,' we see racism, anti-blackness and white supremacy at work," Jackson said.

Ultimately, Jozef said that "given the severe limitations on the availability of COVID testing and the unreliability of test results, all deportations should be halted without condition."

"Having said that, deportations to Haiti are particularly egregious because of the fragile government and almost non-existent healthcare system," Jozef said.

Instead, the U.S. should be releasing detainees to shelter in place with their families, the activist said, as the agency has already been ordered by courts to do in the cases of several hundred detainees.

An ICE spokesperson told Newsweek the agency expects each country to "continue to meet its international obligation to accept its own nationals."

However, they said: "World events or country conditions can sometimes impact a country's willingness to accept its citizens with final orders of removal back to their home countries, and when these events occur, ICE works both directly with foreign governments and through the Department of State to address the situation."

The ICE spokesperson said the agency would continue to adhere to guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that while the DHS and ICE have the lead on this issue, every country has an international legal obligation to accept the return of its nationals whom another state seeks to expel, remove or deport.

They said the U.S. appreciates Haiti's cooperation in that responsibility and said America would continue to work with the Haitian government on their capacity to receive and process citizens in a manner that will protect public health.

USAID currently provides assistance to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to help enhance the capacity of government reception centers and reintegration efforts, they noted.