The camp at Matamoros was perhaps the most egregious to emerge under MPP. Over its several years in existence, more than 3,000 people languished there in crowded tents with minimal access to health care, regular food, or running water. In February 2020, a month before Title 42 came into effect and while MPP remained in place, I rode along with Larry Cox from his home in Los Fresnos, Texas, across the border to the giant bridge encampment. At the time, Cox drove that route nearly every day, carrying school and medical supplies, children’s toys, brooms, and Bibles, weaving a web of human necessity back and forth through the borderlands. Once at the vast encampment, he would collect some of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers and bring them to his shelter, at that time an intentionally inconspicuous white stucco building located in a part of Matamoros called the Colonia Derechos Humanos. There, for as long as the Casa was able to support them, they would receive meals, childcare, legal aid, and basic health care.
The resources Casa de Paz could offer were initially intended for short-term stays, but MPP and now Title 42 have led asylum-seekers to linger, in some cases for more than a year. Casa de Paz, like other humanitarian initiatives attempting to stymy the swell of human suffering at the border, continues to buckle under that weight.
Since the callous end of the Del Rio crisis, still more Haitian asylum-seekers have come to Casa de Paz, and more will almost certainly arrive. The Washington Post recently reported that somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 Haitians are heading to the U.S. by sea or overland from other countries in the Americas. Like Eliphete Cemerant, many left Haiti years ago, in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people. Haitians who subsequently found temporary stability in South America are now making their way north as work opportunities dwindle and their legal status shifts.
To be a Haitian asylum-seeker knocking at the door of the U.S. is to stand at perhaps the most visible convergence of race and empire imaginable in this hemisphere. Citizens of the first free Black republic in the Americas, Haitian migrants have endured all of America’s rampant anti-Blackness, as well as its often deadly and racially motivated immigrant exclusion. The first mass Haitian emigration began during the Cold War under dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and continued under his son and successor, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Both leaders enlisted a personal, militarized security force, known colloquially as the Tontons Macoutes, who surveilled, extorted, and disappeared tens of thousands of Haitians. Despite these abuses, the U.S. supported the Duvaliers financially and militarily, in part because they saw the alliance as one means of containing Cuba’s Communist government across the Windward Passage that separates the two island nations.