Samuel remembers the scorching heat against his skin and the cries of his two young children, who were tired, hungry and sick.
They were in Del Rio, Texas, after a grueling two-month journey from Chile that took them through several countries, including Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.
At the southern US border, Samuel remembers seeing people passed out on the ground as well as pregnant women and babies who had made similar journeys and were stuck in the same precarious situation as he and his family.
His children, who were 8 and 1 at the time, were vomiting and had diarrhea. He thought they would die of hunger if he couldn’t find food quickly.
“In my culture, as a man you’re not supposed to cry. You’re supposed to be the strong one. My children were crying. My wife was crying. I didn’t know what to do,” Samuel told HuffPost via an interpreter.
Samuel, who is being referred to by a pseudonym due to his work in Haitian politics and because he is seeking asylum in the US, decided to take his son to a river, where he had heard that local organizations were passing out food. On his way there, he suddenly saw scores of people running in his direction, being chased by Americans.
His son began screaming and tried to run away. In his panic, the young boy fell and injured his eye before Samuel could scoop him up. It has been a year, and Samuel said his son still hasn’t been able to recover, physically and emotionally, from the incident.
In September 2021, US Border Patrol agents on horseback chased tens of thousands of Haitian migrants and asylum seekers as they crossed the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio. Photos and videos of the incident went viral, particularly one photo showing a Border Patrol officer on horseback grabbing at the shirt of a migrant holding bags that appeared to be holding food and water. In another incident, an agent yelled profanities at a migrant and dangerously maneuvered his horse around a small child on a slanted concrete ramp. At least one agent was recorded making derogatory comments about Haiti and Haitian women.
The incident drew national attention, and the pushback was immediate, with people condemning the Border Patrol for its treatment of the migrants.
Despite the outcry, Haitian migrants, immigration activists and researchers say that little has been done to rectify the asylum process, and they point to a larger issue at hand: institutionalized racism that has become deeply embedded in the country’s immigration laws, particularly for Black migrants .
“As we are heading into the one-year anniversary of what the world witnessed in Del Rio, we want people to remember that moment. We want people to remember the inhumane treatment of people of African descent,” said Guerline Jozef, the executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for fair immigration policies.
Race Based Torture
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both condemned the incident at the border at the time, with Harris comparing the treatment of Haitians to the abuse Black people faced during slavery.
“As we all know, it evoked images of some of the worst moments of our history where that kind of behavior has been used against the Indigenous people of our country, has been used against African Americans during times of slavery,” the vice president said last year.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection investigation released in July found that border agents used “unnecessary force,” and four Border Patrol agents will face disciplinary action. The CBP said its investigation turned up no evidence that the agents had struck migrants with their kidneys, intentionally or otherwise, a claim that initially fueled anger when the video went viral.
But according to a report released Thursday by Amnesty International, Haitian asylum seekers were subjected to discriminatory treatment that amounted to race-based torture. The report concludes that there is an “urgent need for an investigation into systemic anti-Black racism within the immigration system.”
“What happened in Del Rio in September last year is just really the tip of the iceberg,” said Louise Tillotson, a researcher for Amnesty International. “It was an emblematic example of just how embedded discrimination is and how systemic it is in the system, and we think that that needs to be investigated.”
The report, which was based on testimony from 24 Haitians, psychologists who worked with those migrants and other academics, noted that the treatment Haitians experienced in US detention facilities ― which included lack of access to food, health care, information, interpreters and lawyers, as well as being shackled when they were forcibly expelled ― constituted torture and ill treatment.
“Expulsion in handcuffs and shackles really caused them grave suffering, and they felt that their dignity was stripped from them at that moment,” Tillotson said. “We believe, based on the testimonies that we took, the suffering and pain met thresholds of torture within international law because it evokes associations with slavery, and was based on discrimination due to race and migration status.”
For Jozef, the report serves as a stark reminder of history.
“As a country, we went back to our enslavement roots,” she said.
An Arduous Journey North
In 2016, Samuel fled Haiti after being attacked at least twice by armed men due to his political activism.
He first went to Chile ― a nearby country that hosts one of the world’s largest Haitian diasporas ― where his family eventually joined him. But conditions in Chile were difficult. Many Haitians in Chile battle anti-Black racism, low wages and unstable work due to the pandemic. Samuel and his family decided to migrate north.
“This journey, every time I think about it now, I can’t really hold my tears,” Samuel said. “When I think about it today, the risk that I took to save my life and my family’s life is probably not something that I would do again.”
The journey was treacherous. The family was robbed several times, forced to pay scraps to local law enforcement and became physically strained from the journey.
When they finally arrived at the southern border, the family was relieved to have made it onto US soil.
“I remember we were saying, ‘Oh, my God. Finally, we will be saved,’” Samuel said.
But his optimism dissipated when he saw the conditions of other Haitians. Without shelter, Samuel laid out his clothes and used tree branches for his family to sleep on the floor. He begged Border Patrol officials for medicine for his ailing children, which he says he never received.
The message sent that day in Del Rio, he said, was clear: that his people weren’t welcome and would be subjected to racism.
Samuel is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the government filed in December in the US District Court for the District of Columbiar. The complaint accuses the government of physical and verbal abuse, inhumane treatment and denial of due process under Title 42, the public health order that gives border officials power to expel those who crossed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Immigration is a Black issue. Immigration is a human rights issue. So we want to make it clear that we cannot disconnect immigration from Blackness and vice versa,” Jozef said. The Haitian Bridge Alliance is one of several organizations representing Samuel and the other migrants in the lawsuit.
For Samuel, the journey to recovery is a long one. He is especially worried about his son, who he said is petrified at the sight of the police.
“We are people asking for asylum and protection,” he said. “Whatever happened that day can never happen again.”