In recent weeks, Americans have been captivated by two episodes of heart-wrenching images of migrants seeking safety.
The first was harrowing footage of desperate Afghans trying to access the airport in Kabul as the city succumbed to the Taliban. Some passed newborn babies over the wall to American soldiers, while others clung on to departing evacuation aircraft – several of whom tragically fell to their deaths.
The second instance came shortly after, with the arrival of tens of thousands of Haitian asylum seekers amassing at the border near Del Rio, Texas. Unable to return to a country devastated by a natural disaster that displaced thousands, extreme poverty, and political instability exacerbated by a presidential assassination, these migrants were largely turned back by horse-mounted Border Patrol agents. The images sparked a similar reaction among the American people, ranging from empathy for the huddled masses to outrage at the callous indifference of border authorities.
Despite the media attention paid to these similarly desperate groups of migrants, the U.S. response to each has been far from consistent. While Afghans have been welcomed with open arms by the federal government, 53,000 of whom are currently being accommodated on U.S. military facilities, Haitians have not received the same warm welcome. Thousands of those encamped at the border were expelled under an obscure public health order known as Title 42 – a policy that flies in the face of decades of asylum law, allowing officials to return asylum seekers without so much as an interview or court hearing.
The core question that arises is simply, why the disparate treatment of two equally afflicted groups of people seeking protection?
In terms of welcoming Afghans, part of the answer may lie in the decades-long connection Americans have with our nation’s longest war. Many understand implicitly the direct impact of our foreign policy on Afghanistan: that there is a debt we owe to them for its outcome, and for their faithful service.
Americans grasp the threat the Taliban poses to large swaths of Afghans, be they interpreters, journalists, women’s rights activists, or American-affiliated NGO workers. And 37 governors have come out in favor of welcoming refugees: a promising signal when compared to the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 when 31 governors spoke out in opposition to accepting them.
What Americans may not understand as well is the similarly impactful role the U.S. has played in terms of the conditions we see in Haiti. From the nation’s inception, America supported French colonial forces in staving off slave rebellion. And just as our nation intervened in Afghanistan for two decades, beginning in 1915, we also engaged in a military occupation of Haiti for twenty years. Again in 1994, the U.S. intervened to restore President Aristide to power, conditional on his signing an agreement with the IMF and the World Bank – binding the struggling nation to structural adjustment policies, thereby rendering it dependent on international financial organizations for its economic well-being.
This parallel history of U.S. intervention has led to nearly identical drivers of displacement. Though Haitians may not face the draconian rule enforced by the Taliban, they nonetheless face the prospect of being “disappeared” simply for speaking out against their government, or against the many violent gang leaders who now patrol the streets with impunity. Women in both Afghanistan and Haiti are acutely vulnerable to gender-based violence. And in both nations, we see economies in shambles – in Afghanistan, 90% have reported not having enough food to eat due to sky-rocketing prices, while Haiti remains the poorest country in the hemisphere.
We simply cannot fling open the doors to one group while simultaneously slamming them shut on another equally desperate one. While some may argue that the dual crises of Afghanistan and Haiti make it virtually impossible for our country to do two things at once, Americans, by and large, are eager to fulfill our promise to Afghans while also affording compassion and due process to the tens of thousands of asylum-seeking Haitians in need of protection.
As the head of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, I’ve witnessed this enthusiasm in the extraordinary outpouring of support in recent weeks. We have been inspired and bolstered by the thousands of people who have signed up to volunteer in welcoming Afghans, and the thousands more who have advocated to the Biden administration for the dignified welcome of Haitians.
That support is equally borne out in public polling. A new Associated Press survey finds “72% of Americans say they favor the U.S. granting refugee status to people who worked with the U.S. or Afghan governments during the war in Afghanistan, if they pass security checks.” As far as support for immigration on the whole goes, Gallup polling shows that more Americans than ever before believe the U.S. should accept more immigrants and that their presence here is beneficial.
That spirit of welcome is reflected in my own family’s story of displacement. My parents fled Sri Lanka as it descended into civil war because they were members of the ethnic and religious minority. They sought refuge with just $200 to their names and two small children in tow. We were fortunate, not only to be accepted into the U.S., but to be embraced by the local Baltimore community. It was the Superintendent of the school system who helped find our first basement apartment, and the Vice Principal who helped my father set up a bank account.
They were our friends when we needed it most, and they quickly became our extended family. That sense of community is what allowed my parents to thrive, and for me to get a world-class education, work in the White House, and now, pay forward the warm welcome we received to the next generation of families in need.
Who we admit says as much about us a people as it says about the people seeking refuge on our shores. The fact of the matter is that our dysfunctional immigration system does not reflect the values most Americans hold dear. Until it does, and robust pathways of legal immigration exist, we will continue to see our leaders slap band-aids on crisis after crisis.
On both sides of the aisle, we have seen elected officials rely predominantly on failed deterrence strategies, yet none have opted to build an enduring immigration infrastructure with the capacity and compassion to respond to surges in migration that, historically, have been both seasonal and cyclical.
It will not be long before our nation is once again tested. In fact, Panamanian government officials say there are as many as 60,000 migrants — mostly Haitian — poised to make their way north to the U.S.-Mexico border. This is our opportunity to get it right – to build a system based on humanity, justice, and the rule of law.
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah
Krish is the President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She previously served in the Obama White House as Policy Director for First Lady Michelle Obama and at the State Department as Senior Advisor under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry.