“We want fair treatment for Haitian refugees”.
Those are the words NBA hall of famer Dikembe Mutombo used when I asked him about the Haitian refugees being brutalized and subject to mass deportations at the US-Mexico border. It’s a statement that shouldn’t need any more explanation in a country that once said: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
Unfortunately for Haitians, those words don’t appear to apply to them. Refugees from the Caribbean nation have been forced from their country by a combination of devastating natural disasters, poverty and political instability.
America’s welcome has included deporting thousands of the refugees to Haiti, a country some of them have never been to. But as well as the bureaucratic indifference to the plight of the refugees, there have been more visceral examples of the inhumanity shown by the United States. Images at the US-Mexico border captured by photojournalist Paul Ratje showed two Black men being pursued by a white security agent on horseback, who used his reins like a whip. Humans being treated like cattle is horrifying enough in any context, but the images were particularly repellant in a country founded on slavery.
There was relief when the regime of Donald Trump left the White House. But Ratje’s photos left many wondering if this is the change they voted for. Is trading someone who promotes, initiates, and supports evil (Trump) for someone who allows evil to continue (Biden) an improvement?
And those who have doubts include athletes in the NBA, where 75% of players are Black – some of them with roots in Haiti. Olden Polynice, a human rights activist and 15-year NBA veteran, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. During a recent appearance on my podcast, I asked him for his thoughts on the treatment of Haitians at the border.
“My first reaction was sadness. I’ve seen this movie before. In 1993 when I did my hunger strike [to protest US policies on Haitian refugees] we had the same situation. But it wasn’t the coronavirus back then, it was the Aids epidemic. And America was spreading the false notion that Haitians were bringing Aids into the country and they began putting them in Guantanamo Bay. So I have already seen this. It’s history repeating itself.”
The end of historic injustices are exactly what NBA players have fought for in recent years – highlighted most clearly in the months after the police murder of George Floyd. Former NBA All-Star Joakim Noah told me the scenes at the border were a reminder that the journey is not over.
“The images of border patrol agents on horseback whipping Haitian asylum seekers are appalling and unacceptable. These are human beings who have lost everything and are knowingly willing to face such injustices to their human rights because there aren’t any better options,” he said.
“Of course immigration is complex, but no human being should be treated like an animal in order to find a better life – it’s shameful and inhumane. We fought so hard over the past few years to shed light on police brutality in brown and Black communities and to hold accountable those who abuse their positions of power. We need to hold the Biden administration accountable to process immigrants and asylum seekers according to international law and to hold border patrol and vigilantes accountable for their abuse of power.”
It is not just Polynice and Noah who were saddened by America’s treatment of the refugees. After a few days of anger from the public, Biden condemned the inhumane treatment of the Haitians and said that anyone who has mistreated refugees at the Mexico border “will pay”. It’s important to note that details about actual policy change were absent from Biden’s remarks, as well as those of Vice President Kamala Harris. There is no suggestion that America will now abandon the mass deportations and give the Haitians the same dignity and opportunities they give to refugees of other nationalities.
Biden’s comments far exceed anything Trump was willing to do – after all, he couldn’t even condemn white supremacists after the 2017 Charlottesville hate rally. But “better than Donald” is a low bar for Biden to set himself.
“We voted for these people, and politicians can be some of the biggest gangsters in the world. And whatever they say to get elected, isn’t always what they do after getting in office. They say bring us your tired and your huddled masses and come to a place of freedom, but the problem is, it’s not for everyone. It should be about human rights, but these people don’t see it that way,” says Polynice.
“The Haitians deserve the same that you gave to the Cubans that came over here, the same that you gave to the Afghans, the same that any other group of people receive from the United States. No more no less. Just give us the respect of valuing our human rights. That’s all we want.”
America voted for a changing of the guard, and in some cases NBA players actively assisted in that change. The expectation was for a massive change in policy. But rounding human beings up like cattle at the border seems like the same old America to many of us.