Following the aftermath of a devastating tropical storm and earthquake, alongside the assassination of the Haitian president, Jovenel Moise, Haiti has been thrown into a whirlwind of catastrophe.
While the harrowing and desperate images of Haitian asylum seekers being intercepted by US Border Forces spread worldwide, we are forced to reckon with America’s violent and racist history with Haiti as further examples of the West’s sycophantic obsession with subjecting Haitians to violence surface.
What solidifies this latest act of violence against Haitians is the deployment of border force agents on horseback, rounding up Haitian Asylum seekers. Such images draw upon America’s long history of implementing White terror as a form of state-sanctioned violence and more profound articulation of American imperialism and racism in action. The images of border force agents on horseback harks back to Slave Patrols and a Jim Crow style of policing.
Slave patrols were some of the first forms of policing present in America. However, their origins are firmly rooted in slavery within American society. The origins of the first slave patrols were initially founded in the Southern states in the early 1700s, but by the end of the century, they had expanded to the majority of states.
Slave patrols served a specific function within the maintenance of slavery and capitalism; they functioned as the preservation of capital itself by capturing and returning slaves to their owners. Engaging in White terror tactics through violence aimed to deter slaves from escaping and resisting protecting the interests of capital. The purpose of slave patrols extended the power of the carceral state to poor Whites looking for work, and as such, solidified the expansion of the carceral state.
Constructing this system predicated upon preserving the institution of slavery itself – and therefore, even poor White people harboring escaped slaves was constituted a criminal offense. Slave patrollers, usually men, represented an emerging class within the structure of slavery and capitalism. It afforded poor White men an opportunity to transcend their meager position within American society and were loyal to the carceral state.
Understood through the lens of imperialism, borders enable societies to “defend” their nations. But more so, to enable those in power to dictate the parameters of how society looks, who has the stakes, and who is deemed threatening to it. Borders are not neutral, nor by any means do they protect those within them. The function of borders is to preserve capital itself and exclude those racialized as “others” from entering and accessing services.
Borders operate as a technology of power; they are fundamental forms of violence and exclusion. As posited in Leah Cowan’s Border Nation, “borders create citizens and non-citizens, ‘aliens’ and nationals, undocumented people and sans papiers, ‘foreigners’ and ex-pats. They are the product of long histories of injustice, which means that we – our flesh, bones, and the very breath which keeps us alive – can be crudely termed ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the law.”
“Borders create citizens and non-citizens, ‘aliens’ and nationals, undocumented people and sans papiers, ‘foreigners’ and ex-pats. They are the product of long histories of injustice, which means that we – our flesh, bones, and the very breath which keeps us alive – can be crudely termed ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the law”Leah Cowan in Border Nation
It is immaterial that Haitians fleeing Haiti are vulnerable or desperate; in the eyes of the American empire, they are – as Clement Attlee described the Windrush generation – an incursion.
Haitians seeking asylum in America is not a new phenomenon; it is well documented that Haitians have sought asylum in the US for decades. What is not new, is the racist treatment of Haitians at the US borders, which has been a mainstay position with successive American presidents. Such treatment manifests itself as: holding Haitian asylum seekers in detention for more extended periods; casting Haitians as criminals, unskilled, diseased, and poor. This rhetoric has been a central part of the immigration detention story. Therefore, we must contextualize the treatment of Haitian asylum seekers to understand how racist immigration policies are maintained. From the occupation of Haiti by the US to the re-emergence of immigration detention in the early 1970s, Haitians have felt the brunt of US imperialism for many decades.
American exceptionalism – much like the pervasive exceptionalism within the West – dictates that America celebrates freedom, liberty, and fraternity; it is a society built on immigration. Thus, fundamentally, America views herself as an accepting society. However, a cursory glance at current American immigration policies, the dehumanizing and violent treatment at the border, the allegations of detention centers engaging forced hysterectomies, and ideological rhetoric steeped in violence and exclusion shatters this myth. Regressive immigration policies expose the fallacy that is American exceptionalism. The destabilization of Haiti and American imperialism have created a crisis of Haitian immigration, long rooted in violent occupation, exploitation and extraction of Haiti’s natural resources, and an economy tied to the imperialist interests of American capital.
From the images of border agents on horses, to the oppressive immigration policies enacted and maintained by successive American presidents, to the violent destabilization of Haiti, these things cannot be seen in isolation. Such images must be properly interrogated and contextualized within the legacies of slavery, imperialism, and colonial violence. The centuries-long vendetta against Haiti manifests itself as the negation of humanity and Haitian self-governance
Ashley Roach-McFarlane is a freelance writer who has written for the Verso Blog, Pluto Press, Bad Form Review, and others, where he discusses issues around politics, race, class, and capitalism. You can find him at mandark3000.