“This Is Not for the Policy People”: Ninaj Raoul on Making Change for Migrant Lives

In this series commissioned by Catherine Ramirez and A. Naomi Paik, contributors examine the legacy of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the simultaneous launching of the Border Patrol, which, together, inaugurated the most restrictive era of US immigration history until our own.
“I’d never imagine that in 2024 we would have tents of refugees in Brooklyn. … We’ve totally gone backward.”

In September 1991, a military coup d’etat ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the recently elected and massively popular president of Haiti. The forces behind the coup soon turned against Aristide’s supporters, spreading violence through the country and forcing tens of thousands to flee for their survival. The United States responded by sending the Coast Guard to intercept the migrants’ boats and detaining them at a makeshift camp, built at its Guantánamo Bay naval base.

Responding to this crisis, Ninaj Raoul traveled to Guantánamo multiple times to serve as an interpreter for the migrants’ asylum interviews. In the process, she became their witness, advocate, and friend, ultimately cofounding Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees (HWHR). Since then, Raoul has continued grassroots organizing for Haitian and migrant justice—from Haiti and the Dominican Republic to Brooklyn and rural Pennsylvania.

Her three decades of work took place at the same time as US immigration policies deepened, hardened, and spread. Indeed, the targeting of Haitian migrants in the early 1990s set precedents that continue to permeate border and migration regimes in the US and beyond, like extraterritorial border enforcement, blanket asylum denials, and offshore detention. As she noted in our conversation, today’s migrant detention industry emerged out of detaining Haitians.

And—as the September 2021 Border Patrol raid against Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, showed so clearly—assaults on Haitian migrants endure. As the political crisis in Haiti continues to spiral (following the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse), Joe Biden is now considering using Guantánamo as an offshore detention center, once again, to exclude and remove Haitian migrants.

In the following conversation, Raoul recounts her work in Guantánamo through to the present moment, as HWHR leads a new generation of organizers for migrant and social justice.


A. Naomi Paik (ANP): Could you tell us about the origins of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees (HWHR)? And how did you start your organizing work?

 

Ninaj Raoul (NR): When I first went to Guantánamo, I met the person who would become a cofounder of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, Marie Lily Cerat. We didn’t start the organization until months later, but we were both from Brooklyn and there as linguist specialists, interpreting for the refugees’ “credible fear” interviews (the first INS interview that determines whether someone has a chance at asylum or would be repatriated against their will). The standards which they had to meet were quite arbitrary. And the people had no kind of advocacy, no access to a lawyer or anyone to offer them advice.

While working in Guantánamo, we met people that were heading to the Brooklyn area. We worried about how people were going to cope in a big city. So, we shared our phone number and started getting a lot of calls. And they passed our numbers on to other refugees.

The organization’s founders and volunteers ended up taking people into their homes—ours included—because we saw what they had been through, and we had gotten to know them. And we just didn’t want them to land in some random shelter in New York City and be further humiliated. We ended up working very closely with that population, even as the years went by.

We started having weekly meetings at a church community space. There, we addressed their issues in groups, and connected them with people equipped to answer the particular questions that asylum seekers face. These were basic things, which any refugee population would have to deal with: getting their kids in school, getting medical benefits, finding a lawyer, and learning a new language.

When there was no more room in the language classes, we just started one. Then we realized a lot of people were low literacy. So, then we had to start an alphabetization native literacy class. That was great because it really made a difference, and it was not really available elsewhere.

Some people had to take informal jobs like domestic work and day labor, which were without employee protections, leaving them vulnerable to worker exploitation. Basic racism. We incorporated worker education in the curriculum in the survival English classes and provided space to address these issues, with a goal of putting people in a position to advocate for themselves.

People were even being denied basic services from the government, such as getting a social security card or Medicaid, and access to refugee support services for which they qualified. We organically went into organizing mode to respond to these disparities. We would meet with the head of Medicaid, or other city government services, and they would address it. Then, they would put out communications and directives throughout their agencies, to let people know that if they see a Haitian with this I-94 humanitarian parole card, this is how they should be treated. They do qualify.

One of the big issues for the refugees who came from Guantánamo is that they were left in limbo, much like the folks who are paroled in today at the US-Mexico border. Their paroles had run out; moreover, there was a blanket decision to freeze their asylum cases and not hear them in court. At least in New York, I was initially able to get folks to the INS and get both employment authorization and their I-94s renewed, just from having a local agreement with the local district director.

Haitians have always had a very low asylum rate—that is, the rate at which they are granted asylum—one of the lowest compared to any other nationals in the US. From 1980–1990, less than 2 percent of those who applied for asylum were granted asylum. Today, Haitians still have a relatively low rate of being granted asylum.

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ANP: How did your work at Guantánamo evolve?

 

NR: There were a few different legal entities that came together, and HWHR staff members would go to interpret and provide informal counseling. And then the US started testing the refugees for diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV; thereafter, they detained those who tested positive and their family members together in a separate part of the camp called Camp Bulkeley. They were detained in Guantánamo a long time, some as long as 18 months.

In the media, you would have thought that 99 percent of Haitian refugees were HIV positive, even though it was closer to 1 percent. And this is coming out of the 1980s, when Haitians got stigmatized for and accused of bringing AIDS to this country. While the scientific community misinformed, mass media communicated misconceptions about the 4 H’s—homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts, and Haitians—stigmatized as AIDS carriers. It was even written in epidemiology textbooks at Yale University.

This caused great difficulties in the Haitian community, let alone the broader community. People lost their jobs; youth were bullied and beaten at school. It led the FDA to restrict Haitians from donating blood. This was met by the resistance of Haitian people who stood to be impacted across classes. On April 20, 1990, reportedly close to 100,000 Haitians marched over the Brooklyn Bridge, in a powerful action which led to the reversal of this racist policy.

 

ANP: How has HWHR worked in solidarity with other movements and groups through the years?

 

NR: During the Guantánamo detention in Camp Bulkeley, we made frequent trips to the detention site, witnessing the hunger strikes and different resistance. We were in solidarity with them. There was a “Shut Down Guantánamo” movement throughout the country, with different college student groups that were in solidarity with them, organizing hunger strikes on their college campuses. There were community groups, including HIV activists like ACT UP, and GMHC, and activist groups from the Haitian community, constantly organizing protests and actions. These grassroots efforts were impactful support for the litigation, Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, Inc. Eventually, as you know, the Bulkeley refugees won their case and were released in June 1993.

However, while these Haitians found release from the camp and permitted entry to the US, their case was vacated of all legal precedent. This meant that the US state could use the Guantánamo naval base for extralegal, offshore detention in the future.

After 9/11, the US just decided to detain all these Middle Eastern and South Asian people in Guantánamo, the same camp. And Attorney General John Ashcroft said he believe that some of those people were coming through Haiti, and that Haitians should also be detained at Guantánamo.

I started seeing in 2002 that Haitian families and youth were being sent to Berks County, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. So, I connected with another organization in New York called DRUM, Desis Rising Up and Moving. They were visiting a lot of South Asians and Middle Eastern people in the local New Jersey detention centers. In fact, I had already been reaching out to DRUM about solidarity around youth work. A lot of South Asian and Middle Eastern youth were catching hell, even in schools, leading to both youth and adults being wrongfully detained. All in the name of hate, with people calling them terrorists.

I knew Haitians had gone through that in the 1980s with AIDS stigmatization. So I thought it would be good to get some Haitian youth together with them, and I reached out. They actually told me that they’d been going to the detention centers, and they had also seen a rise in the Haitian population in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. So, I started going with them.

We were doing a lot of detention visits. There were a lot of people inside without any access to representation. That was when another colleague I knew at the Petra Foundation told me that they have all these teenagers from Haiti in the Berks Country Detention Center.

I didn’t even know they had detention for children, other than what I saw in Guantánamo, since I saw a lot of unaccompanied minors there. Sometimes they would put them in solitary confinement for discipline. They were punished for mental health struggles. It was a horrible situation. It eventually got shut down due to a lot of advocacy from local groups and even Amnesty International. One of the youths who was falsely accused of being a suicide bomber and wrongfully detained there, Adama Bah, was later granted asylum. She founded Afrikana, an organization in Harlem assisting asylum seekers from different African countries today.

In 2020, during the pandemic, we were back at the same place, the same facility. I learned from our movement partners at Tsuru for Solidarity that most of the families detained at Berks County Detention Center were Haitians. The organization was founded by survivors and descendants of Japanese American and Japanese Latin American from the World War II “internment” camps. Because of that history, they’d been doing a lot of solidarity, antidetention work.

So, they reached out to us when everything was locked down and few organizations were doing physical actions. They told us about the situation, because, at the time, most of the families being detained at Berks were Haitians. Japanese and Haitian folks organized by Tsuru and HWHR came from New York and other places, and we joined the actions outside the same Berks County Detention Center organized by the local organizations from the Shut Down Berks Coalition. Again.

We had families there—babies in diapers. I just couldn’t.

Here we are in 2020, fighting the same fight, after we had already worked to shut it down. But all the groups joined the efforts of Shut Down Berks Coalition, which we joined. And we got it shut down again.

But there were other camp-like detention centers where Haitians were detained, like Karnes and Dilley, so there was a national movement to shut down these detentions, as there currently is in Washington state. That’s how we started working together with Tsuru and still do today.

 

ANP: Can you talk a bit about how electoral politics affects the conditions of your organizing? What lessons might we take from these earlier moments in HWHR’s and your own history of organizing for today?

 

NR: Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were just notoriously weak on immigration, so when Obama won the election in 2008, he wasn’t even listening to us. George W. Bush—or “Baby Bush,” as Haitians called him to differentiate him from his father—was considering “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS) for Haitian migrants, which Haitians had been building a movement to gain. But Obama wouldn’t entertain it at all until the 2010 earthquake happened, and granting TPS was his reaction.

TPS wasn’t enough. We hadn’t seen people since the 1990s coming in on parole. But this time, we weren’t seeing the extensive paroles we had seen before. These new arrivals didn’t qualify for anything in terms of services or benefits, because their parole periods were so short. It didn’t make any sense, because so many of the people that came in had grave injuries, like lost limbs, and they didn’t qualify for the assistance they needed.

Remember, the 2010 earthquake reportedly killed nearly 250,000 people and displaced over 1 million people. We thought, This is ridiculous. As part of a national movement, we pushed the US administration to do a redesignation of TPS in 2011 to include the earthquake survivors that had entered the US.

Then, in 2011 and 2012, we started seeing a few Haitians come from the US-Mexico border near San Diego. They started showing up at our legal clinics randomly, but regularly.

But it was in 2016 that we really started seeing large numbers, when there was a surge at the border. Many Haitians had been recruited to work in Brazil after the earthquake to build World Cup and Olympic stadiums and hotels to accommodate guests, a recruitment move which Brazil presented as humanitarian aid. But then they had an economic downturn and political instability with the coup d’etat against Dilma Rousseff. So Brazil then started pushing out the Haitian workers, who ended up taking a treacherous journey through 10 countries to the US-Mexico border in larger numbers, alongside refugees from other countries.

Initially, the Obama Administration was letting the Haitians in on humanitarian parole. But they flip-flopped their practice, trying to set up Hillary for the election: taking extreme measures on the border, saying that any Haitians that came to the border would be detained and deported (an announcement on September 22, 2016—effective immediately).

And that’s when the mass deportation started. Record numbers that we hadn’t seen before. The Obama Administration just started deporting people like crazy, causing many family separations. We saw that it was out of control. It was just a desperate attempt to make it look like they’re not easy on the border, and they didn’t want to lose votes.

And that’s what we’re seeing now with Biden. We expect to see it get worse, as we’re hearing about how they’re about to sacrifice asylum process. It’s a repeat of 2016, because this is an election year.

And that’s what we always see. We know that we’re going to see a lot of people go through what happened at the Del Rio International Bridge in 2021. So many separations of family and harsh treatment: chains around your wrists and bodies and ankles, callbacks to slavery.

We always know the reaction is going to be mass deportation. Three-fourths of the people were deported, which was the same as the migrants who passed through Guantánamo. Three-fourths were deported back to Haiti. Back then, when Bill Clinton got elected, he made migration policy much tougher than what he promised, and even tougher than the first Bush. He made it harder and more dangerous to get asylum. And we see Biden attempting to do the same now.

ANP: As the migration policy devolves and gets harsher and more draconian seemingly everywhere, how are you moving forward? What does organizing look like for HWHR now and in the future?

 

NR: I’d never imagine, Naomi, that in 2024 we would have tents of refugees in Brooklyn. Chicago, Boston, and these other cities that are dealing with influxes as well, with people sleeping in police stations, schools, and on sidewalks. We found ourselves going to the tent camp for refugees. We’ve totally gone backward.

You know, we still have people coming in that have been through layers of trauma in their migration journey. There was a family member of a 16-year-old who came in today who was separated from her family at the border and sent to some youth facility in Chicago. She’s been separated from her aunt for months. We hear these stories every day and help people with their immediate needs.

We’ve been involved with some litigation efforts particularly around our TPS organizing work. HWHR was a coplaintiff in a case with the NAACP charging that the Trump administration terminated TPS for reasons rooted in racism. One of our members was a plaintiff in Saget v. Trump, and our members organized around the National TPS Alliance’s Ramos case to protect TPS.

More recently in Indiana, five Haitians under humanitarian parole sued to have access to drivers’ licenses, which were being given to Ukrainian migrants but denied to Haitians. We had one of our reports, Humanitarian Parole Crisis: How Racist Policies and Practices Deny Haitians Work Authorization, released just a few days before they filed their lawsuit about racism in processing employment authorization and humanitarian parole. These folks in Indiana can now apply for drivers’ licenses. And there have been some changes, where our findings and recommendations have had impact since the report release in November.

Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees (HWHR) was able to expand on our work to support transformative changes to the US immigration system, even as we fight for humanitarian protections for our families and youth, who are constantly under attack by an administration historically flawed with a legacy of racism.

We have been holding trauma-informed healing justice spaces for undocumented immigrants, including for our youth members looking to adjust their immigration status through Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) as well as for survivors of gender-based violence.

These spaces are led by directly impacted staff members, who naturally create a trusting environment since they have lived experience. We have seen the power building that happens in these brave spaces, and the transformation of people as they realize that they can take charge of their cases, self-advocate and change their situations, while fighting for justice for the community at large.

Tsuru for Solidarity’s work documenting the “internment” of their ancestors helped impact our decision to shift from producing what was intended to be a policy report to making a report for our youth, for the future. We began to receive calls from youth whose parents had been detained. I saw how inherited trauma can affect newer generations, while engaging them in movement work. Our upcoming report, Rezistans, is going to focus on youth for the future, and how the legacy of US racism against Haitians has been met with resistance and the legacy of the revolutionary spirit of the Haitian people, inherited from our ancestors.

This work is not for the policy makers. This is for the future organizers who are going to continue this work, because the change is not going to come from up there. The power to resist racism comes from within us. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik on the border crisis 100 years after the Immigration Act of 1924.

Featured-image photograph: Aerial view of Camp Bulkeley, looking southwest, in 1994, by the Department of Defense via the Defense Visual Information Center (Public Domain).