In the Q&A below, UPF author April J. Mayes (Transnational Hispaniola) talks to fellow UPF author Carl Lindskoog about his new book, Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System. We invite you to sit in on the conversation as these two scholars of Haitian history discuss topics including racism in U.S. immigration policy, problems of erasure and silencing in archival sources, widespread false images of Haitians, and counter-narratives of Haiti as a place of power and liberation.
Questions by April J. Mayes, coeditor (with Kiran C. Jayaram) of Transnational Hispaniola: New Directions in Haitian and Dominican Studies. Associate professor of history at Pomona College, Mayes is also the author of The Mulatto Republic: Class, Race, and Dominican National Identity.
Answers by Carl Lindskoog, author of Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System. Lindskoog is assistant professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College.
April J. Mayes (AM): In your contention that there is a longer history behind the more contemporary left/progressive Haitian solidarity movement, one that began with African-American-Haitian engagements from the nineteenth century, you link African diaspora politics with left critiques of U.S. foreign policy and immigration politics. In this current era of Black Lives Matter, do you see this history helping develop a global critique of anti-blackness both in immigration policy and in the treatment of refugees and immigrants?
Carl Lindskoog (CL): Haitian activists and their allies had an awareness and understanding of the anti-black racism that lay beneath the policy of Haitian detention (and the brutal treatment of detainees) as well as U.S. policy toward Haiti and the exclusion of Haitian refugees. And they worked hard to expose the racism driving U.S. policy, not only in the treatment of Haitians but also in places like South Africa and in the government’s treatment of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees. They understood that racism wasn’t the only thing driving U.S. immigration and foreign policy, but that it was a significant factor.
I hope this history can provide valuable background for today’s discussions of the role of race and racism in U.S. immigration and foreign policy and that today’s activists and analysts might find here a useful model as they continue to develop their understanding of the linkages between racially-driven policies, both global and the local. For example, what is the relationship between Trump’s blatantly racist comments about Africa and Haiti and the fact that black migrants are disproportionately targeted for detention and deportation in the U.S.? How does the escalating process of militarization and neocolonial dispossession in Africa, and the exclusion of African migrants like the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel relate to this? And finally, what is the relationship between the deadly racism that Black Lives Matters activists are fighting, the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans, and the state violence of immigration detention? Today’s activists are searching for and finding answers to these complex questions.
My hope is that the history of immigration detention and Haitian activism against the detention regime can be a resource for those seeking to understand and take action in the world today.
AM: In order to give us the richly detailed coverage of U.S.-government policy regarding Haitian migrants as you do in chapters 2 and 3, you relied on multiple archives, including the National Council of Churches and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Can you talk about these archives and your method of obtaining Haitian voices? As you know from our work in Transnational Hispaniola, we are preoccupied with “the archive” and how historical memory is often used by those in power to oppress. In this instance, you include activists’ archives. Do these have the same problems of erasure and silencing as the archives of the powerful? How might we as scholars help secure the preservation of activist archives?
CL: It is true that you will not find many Haitian voices in the presidential archives or other archives of those in power, although you can sometimes see the impact of their action. For example, when detainee resistance or political advocacy forced an administration to reconsider or change policy, and when this is discussed in internal correspondence, you’ve got evidence of Haitians’ agency, even if their voices are silent.
The activist and advocates’ archives are a much better place to listen for and to see Haitians and other less powerful people. In collections like those at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and the Human Rights Archive at Duke University as well as the materials collected by scholars and activists like the Alex and Carol Stepick Collection at Florida International University, there are abundant materials featuring the voices of Haitians themselves.
Even these sources need to be treated carefully, of course, because of the many “gates” through which they have had to pass to achieve documentation and to make it into the archives. An affidavit by a Haitian refugee, for example, provides valuable insight into the experience, ideas, and actions of that person. But such a source is also collected for a particular purpose and usually by someone who does not share the refugees’ background and experience. So in the activist archives, the problem is not silencing as much as filtering, and the researcher needs to bear that in mind.
I think there are many ways that we can support and preserve activist archives. One powerful way to do so is to simply keep using them and publicizing our use of these sorts of archives and sources so that others will do the same. By producing work that bridges the gap between scholarship and activism, we are making clear how valuable institutions like the Schomberg Center are, and we are providing models for future researchers and scholars for use of these collections that have a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” orientation.
Another way to support and preserve activist archives is to continue engaging in study and conversation centering on power and historical memory, as your work does. We can also support the often-courageous efforts by public historians to subvert the top-down narrative and to bring forth voices from those at the bottom and on the margins. And finally, we can follow the lead of scholars like Kelly Lytle Hernández who, in her research for her book City of Inmates, created her own “Rebel Archive,” which is a great resource for those of us attempting to understand our nation and world today and one that will remain useful for future generations of scholars.
AM: In my view, your book explains why the current administration seems to be obsessed with Haiti and the arrival of Haitians to the U.S. and has been able to stoke the fear of the “Third World Immigrant” in its discourse regarding immigration more generally. While the contention of your book is that treatment of Haitians set the stage for the expanded detention, interdiction, and repatriation policies the U.S. government currently engages in, you also suggest that there are just some particularities in U.S.-Haiti relations in which the image of the “poor, diseased, and/or dangerous Haitian” serves a more specific function. What are the consequences of these images of Haiti and how might new narratives of Haitian immigration and also Haitian-U.S. relations address these problems?
CL: The most immediate consequences, obviously, have been and continue to be for the people of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. If one believes that Haitians have little to offer, and that they are likely to be a burden or even a danger, then it is much easier to justify their exclusion. President Trump’s actions and statements helped illustrate this point when he ended Temporary Protected Status for Haitians in the United States and also reportedly repeated the old lie that all Haitians have AIDS. So this false image of Haitians has done and continues to do great harm to Haitians in the United States and in Haiti.
The image of the poor, diseased, and dangerous Haitian has more far-reaching consequences as well. Haiti has long served as the “whipping boy” for nativists, xenophobes, and racists. If your objective is to cut off the flow of migration from majority poor and non-white countries, then invoking the specter of Haiti serves a useful purpose in frightening and activating your supporters. This is precisely what nativist groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) did in the 1980s and 1990s. They were seeking to block migrants and asylum seekers from places far beyond Haiti, but at a time when many Haitians were seeking asylum on American shores, they drew upon the well-worn negative stereotypes of Haitians to press for a change in immigration policy.
Interestingly, at the same time that the image of the poor, diseased, and dangerous Haitian serves nativism and xenophobia, it also provides a useful tool for those seeking to promote American exceptionalism. For if Haiti is merely seen as hopelessly poor and chronically ill, and if it is thought that these things are the fault of Haitians, then virtually anything the U.S. or other western powers do in the country can be characterized as benevolence. Economic policies that exploit Haitians and enrich foreign investors can be characterized as aid. Military occupation can be called liberation. And there is little need to seek accountability for a deadly cholera outbreak brought by UN “peacekeepers” if Haiti was a desperate and diseased nation to begin with. So the false image of Haiti and Haitians enables another falsehood—that of American exceptionalism—which then does further harm to Haiti and the world.
On the other hand, another very different image stands alongside that of the poor, diseased, and dangerous Haitian, and that is of Haiti and Haitians as leaders in the cause of black and human liberation. This counter-narrative comes, of course, from the Haitian revolution and it continues throughout the African diaspora and beyond today. In fact, as you know, it was precisely because Haitians broke the chains of slavery and established the world’s first black republic that those in power created and have diligently maintained the image of a poor and pathetic Haiti. They wanted to replace powerful Haiti with something less threatening and more controllable. Black activists throughout history, however, have maintained the more accurate image of Haiti as a place of power and liberation.
It is my hope that the story I tell adds to this counter-narrative by documenting the relentless struggle of Haitian prisoners and their supporters, even in the most violent and repressive circumstances.
Learn more about Carl Lindskoog’s book: