The Haitian Migrant Crisis: Immigrant Rights, Impacts, and Access to Justice

“When…the federal or state government or members of the public target a population and limit or seek to limit that group’s access to judicial or administrative forums, it creates a vulnerable subclass, undermining our system of democracy and the Constitution.”

Boston Bar Association Immigration Principles

In mid-December, the BBA hosted a panel discussion on the Haitian migrant crisis featuring Dr. Geralde Gabeau of Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI), Sara Wilson of Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), Nancy Kelly of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) and Irene Freidel of Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project (PAIR Project). Boston is home to the third-largest population of Haitian immigrants in the U.S. and has seen an increase in Haitian asylum-seekers during the past several months following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise and the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that devastated the country last summer. Inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers at the border garnered outrage and national attention in the fall but did not stop the U.S. from using a provision of federal health law, called Title 42, to deport thousands of Haitians without processing their immigration or asylum claims. A fact-finding mission at the border, conducted by LCR, documented horrible conditions in detention and denial of basic rights, which ultimately led them to file a complaint on behalf of 48 Haitians who experienced this treatment at the border.

Once away from the border, those Haitians who arrive in Boston still face on-going legal and material challenges. IFSI Executive Director Dr. Geralde Gabeau explained during the panel that inadequate access to government benefits such as MassHealth and Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) services is crippling to Haitian refugees, who often arrive in Boston with only the clothes on their backs. Many do not have money to pay for basic necessities, let alone a stable source of income, and also face a steep language barrier to accessing services and navigating the immigration system. Lack of communication from U.S. government agencies overseeing border patrol operations coupled with insufficient documentation and paperwork for those who are allowed entry has made it difficult for IFSI and legal organizations to prepare for refugees’ arrival. As the U.S. has yet to provide relief under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), countless Haitians are forced to pursue their cases in court, with approximately 90 percent being denied asylum in cases without representation, and 82 percent of those with representation being denied – according to GBLS Attorney Nancy Kelly.

“Immigrants, including those who have entered the country without documentation, are entitled to the protections of the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses.”

Principle 3, Immigration Principles

The BBA’s commitment to access to justice for immigrants, as laid out by our Immigration Principles, implores that all people must be afforded a meaningful opportunity to have their claims for asylum heard without fear of deportation. As described by Principle Three: “Immigrants, including those who have entered the country without documentation, are entitled to the protections of the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses.” Despite the border having been re-opened for travel and commerce, the Biden Administration has continued to use Title 42, to deny immigrants access to asylum and due process.

Every person should have the full and meaningful ability to exercise their rights and to access justice through the legal system regardless of immigration or citizenship status, level of income, or economic circumstance.

Principle 4, Immigration Principles

The Boston Bar’s Fourth Immigration Principle states that “Every person should have the full and meaningful ability to exercise their rights and to access justice through the legal system regardless of immigration or citizenship status, level of income, or economic circumstance.” As clearly described by our panel, Haitians are being denied meaningful access to justice to make their claims, as thousands were deported under Title 42, and those who are still here cannot be expected to navigate the judicial system without access to basic human necessities, language support, and assistance navigating complex bureaucratic systems.

“Our history, culture, economy, and traditions have been shaped by…the unique and invaluable contributions of immigrants”

Principle 1, Immigration Principles

What can be done? Federal authorities can exercise their discretion to grant Haitian families immigration protection through humanitarian parole, parole-in-place or deferred action. The Biden administration could extend TPS to Haitians who arrived past July 2021 to provide at least temporary relief while they recover from traumas during their travel and those inflicted at the U.S. border. Beyond advocating for federal action, anyone can volunteer to assist newly arrived immigrants with organizations like IFSI, and lawyers can help through pro bono opportunities at LCR, GBLS, and PAIR Project. The BBA’s First Immigration Principle states that Boston is, and has always been, a city of immigrants: “Our history, culture, economy, and traditions have been shaped by…the unique and invaluable contributions of immigrants,” and the protection of their rights and dignity is essential to the creation of a more diverse, vibrant, and equitable Commonwealth.

Ashley Alphonse, Executive Assistant

Summer Colley, Government Relations Assistant