After more than two years, lawsuit against Biden administration for treatment of Haitian migrants proceeds

The Black migrant advocacy group suing the Biden administration over its treatment of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas, is hopeful after the case saw its first legal proceeding before a federal judge since the potential class-action lawsuit was filed in 2021.

Last week during a status conference, U.S. District Court Judge Jia M. Cobb set a March 8 deadline for the Haitian Bridge Alliance, which is representing 11 Haitian migrants who accused the government of mistreatment and racial discrimination while in U.S. custody. 

“We were really excited to have this hearing and to be able to get a sense of what the court is thinking … and to try to have a schedule moving forward to move this case along,” said Nicole Phillips, an attorney for Haitian Bridge Alliance. 

The Biden administration sought to dismiss the case, which was filed in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 20, 2021. However, on Thursday, Cobb allowed the Haitian Bridge Alliance to amend its complaint after Title 42, a significant policy at the center of the lawsuit, ended on May 11, 2023, due to a separate court order.

In now infamous photographs, one of the plaintiffs in the case, Mirard Joseph, was grabbed by a U.S. border patrol agent on horseback on Sept. 19, 2021. The photos appeared to show the border agent using his horse reins to hit Joseph. The images drew public outrage, including from elected and community leaders who felt the photographs harkened back to the days of slavery and racial subjugation. 

Though the Biden administration maintains that an internal investigation concluded that border agents did not whip migrants with horse reins, the lawsuit — which names President Joe Biden and other Biden officials as defendants — claims that Joseph was “assaulted” and that the horse-mounted border patrol officer “lashed at him with reins, attempted to drag him back into the water, and nearly trampled him.”

While coverage of the incident in Del Rio has primarily focused on whether or not Joseph and other migrants were actually whipped by border patrol, attorneys for Haitian Bridge Alliance make clear that the substance of the case goes much deeper. 

“Their constitutional rights were violated, and they were discriminated against because of their race,” said Phillips. 

Speaking of Joseph, who was deported back to Haiti after the 2021 incident but now lives in the U.S., Phillips added, “What happened to him is what happens to Black people in the United States every day.” 

The lawsuit argues that Joseph and thousands of other Haitian migrants were subject to inhumane conditions while being held at a makeshift U.S. Customs and Border Protection encampment. The complaint alleges that migrants and their children were denied adequate water, food and medical services.

Joseph and other Haitian male migrants crossed back over to the Mexican side of the border to retrieve food for their families. As they made their way back to the U.S. side, they were stopped by the border officers atop horses. The now-viral photographs captured some of what happened next. 

A report from an investigation conducted by a Department of Homeland Security watchdog concluded that while border patrol agents employed “unnecessary use of force” while interacting with Haitian migrants, there was “no evidence” the migrants were struck by horse reins based on interviews with border patrol officers and journalists present at the time.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (left) listens to Anthony Crane, of U.S. border patrol, as he tours a border wall section in Hidalgo, Texas, in 2022. (Photo: Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP, Pool)

The report also concluded that a border officer “acted in an unprofessional manner,” yelling at a male migrant, “This is why your country’s s–t.”

Phillips said the government’s internal investigation into the incident holds “no validity” because officials failed to interview Joseph or any of the other Haitian migrants about what they experienced. She also accused the administration of “ghosting” the group after the two sides made contact amid the lawsuit. 

She continued: “It’s easy to just put it all on one person – was he whipped or not – versus what about the trauma because of the coarse treatment, the lack of respect that all of these individuals experienced.”

The Haitian Bridge Alliance is seeking additional plaintiffs to bring the case to class-action status. Cobb, a Black judge appointed by Biden, gave the group two weeks to do so before ruling to allow the case to move forward or grant the Biden administration’s request to dismiss. 

The administration argued that the case should be dismissed because the policy being challenged by Haitian migrants, Title 42, is no longer being enforced after a court order ended its practice. The public health statute was used during the COVID-19 pandemic to detain migrants at the border and deport them back to Mexico or their home country. 

However, the Haitian Bridge Alliance says the ending of Title 42 does not change the merits of the case. The lawsuit also names the Haitian Deterrence Policy, which plaintiffs argue the U.S. government developed to subject Haitian asylum seekers in Del Rio to “deplorable conditions while in government custody.” The lawsuit accuses the government of being “deliberately indifferent to humanitarian concerns” and “focused on expelling Haitian asylum seekers as quickly as possible.”

The lawsuit also goes through great detail about the history of Haiti and its relationship with the U.S., including the role America played in the years following Haiti’s overthrow of the French government and declaring of its independence. The lawsuit accuses the U.S. government of taking a series of immigration and foreign policy actions that led to Haiti’s present-day instability, which includes gang violence and chronic poverty.

“In the face of this long history of political and economic instability, Haitians have remained steadfast in their struggle for autonomy against external and internal forces seeking to exploit them,” the lawsuit reads. 

Immigrants from Haiti, who crossed through a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border barrier, wait in line to be processed by the U.S. border officials on May 20, 2022, in Yuma, Arizona. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Phillips contended that, for decades, “there has been a deterrence against Haitians who tried to seek protection on U.S. soil, whether it’s by sea or by land, and a whole host of different tools have been used.” She said the Haitian Bridge Alliance became aware of the Haitian Deterrence Policy after a former administration official divulged the information.

“We’re confident that when we’re able to get to the discovery phase, we will be able to get more information,” Phillips added.

Amid the pending lawsuit, the Biden administration continues to stare down what has been described as a migrant crisis at the U.S. border. Facing opposition from Republican members of Congress and Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, the White House is reportedly seeking additional executive actions to curb the number of migrants seeking asylum and expand President Biden’s authority to deport migrants who do not enter the country legally. 

Under current policy, migrants must apply for asylum on a CBP One mobile app and wait in Mexico until they receive a court date in the U.S., which Phillips said could take up to six months. “They have been really risking their lives and the lives of their children to remain in Mexico,” she said. 

The Haitian Bridge Alliance and other advocacy groups say rather than creating more obstacles, the U.S. should do more to ensure that Black migrants, who are fleeing inhumane conditions in their home countries and encountering racial discrimination during their migration journeys, can safely seek refuge. 

“The cost is severe. Many are sick, and we unfortunately have to deal with death on a weekly basis of Haitian or other Black migrants,” said Phillips. “All they’re trying to do is seek asylum and safe protection. They shouldn’t have to wait this six months in order to be able to do so.”

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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The Haitian Bridge Alliance, a Black migrant advocacy group, is suing the Biden administration over the mistreatment of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas. The case, filed in 2021, had its first legal proceeding before a federal judge, Judge Jia M. Cobb. The group is hopeful after receiving a March 8 deadline to amend their complaint. The lawsuit alleges mistreatment, racial discrimination, and violation of constitutional rights of Haitian migrants, including inhumane conditions at U.S. border facilities. The Biden administration sought to dismiss the case but the judge allowed the group to amend its complaint after the end of Title 42, a policy central to the lawsuit. The lawsuit accuses the government of being indifferent to humanitarian concerns and focused on expelling Haitian asylum seekers quickly. The group is seeking class-action status and argues that the U.S. has a history of deterrence against Haitian migrants seeking protection on U.S. soil. The Biden administration faces challenges in handling the migrant crisis at the border, with calls to expand deportation authority and create more obstacles for asylum seekers.

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