On January 12, 2010, a massive 7.0 earthquake struck just 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, killing over 200,000 people, injuring 300,000 others and displacing over a million of people who were forced to live in makeshift camps. Just two weeks after the earthquake, I was in Port-au-Prince with a medical rescue team who served as chaplain. We settled on the edge of a central part of town where up to 600,000 people lived under elongated sheets, baking in the sun, even in January. Mosquitoes were everywhere. The relief response failed dramatically, and the suffering was beyond imagination.
The city seemed to collapse on itself. Razed buildings had scattered their rubble haphazardly in the streets. I saw groups of children wandering aimlessly in the capital. Aid organizations had started to arrive, but were mainly concentrated around the airport at the time and did little with the population.
We set up a medical station across from the collapsed Capitol where we triage, treated minor injuries, and transported larger injuries to the University of Miami field hospital. I saw the edge of a riot as a UN truck drove through distributing large sacks of rice to people. I later learned that a few people had been trampled to death during the disorganized and chaotic food distribution.
The Haitian people we saw were more than desperate. I was able to pray with hundreds of people during this week, all of them expressing deep sorrow. As exhausted and scared as they were, they would line up and wait an hour in the sun just to be seen by a doctor and have medicine and water.
I met a man who lost his wife, children and extended family when their school broke down. He lost 14 of his family in the earthquake, but he volunteered to help us help others. It was happening everywhere in Port-au-Prince at the time. The Haitians came to help us help their people while we distributed our supplies. They carried 50-pound bags of rice and beans and bottles of oil to distribute in the camps. The memory of the gratitude and kindness of the people in the midst of mass destruction remains with me to this day. And, as I returned to Haiti again and again for the next 4 years to work with the churches, I experienced their kindness and hospitality each time.
Last week, when I saw 12 to 15,000 Haitian migrants coming to Del Rio on the Texas-Mexico border in search of asylum, I was first shocked at the number of people, d ‘especially as Del Rio is 2,000 miles from Port-au-Prince. And then I remembered that this was just one more result of the continuing suffering of the Haitian people. The Haitian diaspora, exacerbated by the 2010 earthquake and the political and natural disasters that followed, has been going on for years, with an estimated 1.8 million Haitians living outside Haiti, including 705,000 in the States -United. It has been widely reported that the Haitian migratory route for thousands of men, women and children was from Haiti to South America and then through the dangerous Darien Gap through the jungles of Panama and Central America to Mexico, and finally to the United States. . I have been with Haitian migrant communities in Tijuana after thousands of people arrived there in 2016. When they couldn’t make it to the United States, they stayed in the city and tried to to live. Many of them have been successful, but many others continue to struggle.
The Biden administration’s plan is to repatriate thousands of Haitian migrants to Haiti – an expedited removal process under Title 42 of the United States Code that authorizes emergency measures to protect public health. Under such conditions, which the Trump administration declared shortly after COVID arrived in the United States, the government can return migrants without the ability to seek asylum or wait in the United States for a hearing. . These flights have already started and it is expected that by the end of the week all Haitian migrants will have been repatriated to Haiti in one of the largest mass deportations in recent US history.
Regardless of who should come here, how much or how we let people in, there is one aspect of this tragedy we need to be clear about: Haitians who come to seek refuge at our border have suffered beyond. of the imagination of most Americans. The way we see them and deal with them says a lot about the state of our hearts and consciences.
Secure borders should not mean closed borders. We can make good human decisions about who we allow to come based on need and merit. (At this point, how does turning away from Haitians save the country from COVID?) En masse rejecting thousands of people who come for help and seek refuge creates even more despair and tells the world that America has gone turned away from those who need it. Seeing images of customs and border protection officers on horseback swinging lariats and pushing migrants back into the Rio Grande only adds to the impression that the US response is a hard-of-heart to the desperate and the desperate. vulnerable.
The challenge we face in the face of increasing global migration caused by political and economic disruption, climate change, war, violence, persecution of all kinds, and religious and ethnic discrimination, is to stand firm in our security while not giving up worry and compassion for those in need. . Compassion doesn’t mean chaos at border crossings, of course, and we need to do everything we can to prevent that from happening. But that doesn’t mean either rejecting all legal asylum claims or viewing desperate migrants as invaders or animals to be herded and pushed back into a river. Security and compassion can be balanced and must be intertwined if we are to face the humanitarian crises that will and will occur time and time again in our region. Part of that challenge will be moving from response to preparedness, so that we can meet migrants with compassion, regardless of their legal status or final destination. The government had at least a month’s warning. Was the response so harsh because a softer response was not prepared, and if not, why not?
As I saw footage this week of desperate Haitian migrants, fathers carrying food to their families, women carrying babies, children crying, my mind immediately returned to the days following the 2010 earthquake. in Port-au-Prince when the same images were burned in my soul. Faced with the idea that it could be the same people, or at least that there is an endless stream of suffering from then to today, I can’t help but acknowledge the desperation of it all for them.
As a Christian, I remember Isaiah 58: 7 saying that true religion is “to share your food with those who are hungry and to provide shelter for the poor wanderers.” Our little church has raised a fundraiser to send to Haitian Christian friends in Haiti who will work to serve those in need and possibly pick up some of those deported from Del Rio. As we try to maintain order and security at our border, let us make sure that we do not demonize those who desperately come to us for help. They are human beings created in the image of God. We should view their suffering as a humanitarian tragedy rather than a threat. And, where possible, especially as individuals and through churches and aid organizations, we should do what we can to help.