The notorious incident in Del Rio, Texas, where U.S. border patrol agents on horseback were photographed apparently wielding long reins as whips against Haitian migrants, prompted widespread public outrage. But where Ukrainians seeking refuge in this country found a strong advocate in the Washington Post editorial board, their Haitian counterparts have received notably different treatment.
It’s a fair comparison: Migrants from both countries seek protection in the United States because they fear for their lives in their home country. While Ukraine is actively at war, Haiti’s violence and instability have ebbed and flowed for decades, a result largely of foreign exploitation and intervention, compounded in recent years by devastating earthquakes and hurricanes; neither can provide a basic level of safety for their citizens today.
All have the right under international and U.S. law to seek that protection, including at the U.S. border, where they are required to be given a chance to apply for asylum. Under Title 42 — an obscure and “scientifically baseless” public health directive invoked under Donald Trump at the start of the Covid pandemic, and largely extended under Joe Biden’s administration — that right has been violated, as Haitian (and Central American) asylum seekers have been summarily expelled without being screened for asylum eligibility.
One might imagine that this trampling of rights, more actively nefarious than the foot-dragging on resettling Ukrainian refugees, would prompt more, not less, outrage among media opinion makers. Yet the opposite is true for the Washington Post editorial board, which has written about both situations repeatedly.
‘These could be your children’
When the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked a mass exodus of refugees, the board quickly and passionately urged the Biden administration on March 4 to “welcome Ukrainians with open arms”:
The images linger in your mind: Ukrainian children pressed against the windows of a bus or train sobbing or waving goodbye to their fathers and other relatives who remain behind to try to fight off an unjustified Russian war on Ukraine. It’s easy to imagine this could be your family broken apart. These could be your children joining the more than 1 million refugees trying to flee Ukraine in the past week.
The board argued that accepting Ukrainian refugees would be a “way to truly stand with the brave and industrious Ukrainian people and our allies around the world” — and “also provide more workers for the U.S. economy.”
Less than two weeks later, the Washington Post editorial board returned to the issue, forcefully demanding that Biden’s inaction on bringing Ukrainian refugees to the U.S. “must change” and suggesting that the Department of Homeland Security “step up” and grant them entry under a humanitarian parole system. “At the moment, it’s hard to think of a cohort of refugees whose reasons are more urgent,” the board wrote.
A few weeks after Biden’s March 24 announcement that the U.S. would admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, the editorial board found the idea “heartening,” but called the lack of implementation “an embarrassment to this country.” This was at a time when, as the board noted, most Ukrainians who managed to make it to the U.S.-Mexico border were being allowed entry under the parole system the editorial board had favored.
Later, on June 22, the editorial board celebrated that its exhortations had been followed: “The U.S. Door Swings Open to Ukrainian Refugees.” In that editorial, the board explicitly highlighted that the Ukrainians who had thus far entered the U.S. had done so “in nearly all cases legally.” They wrote:
That tens of thousands of them have successfully sought refuge in this country over about three months, with relatively little fanfare — and even less controversy, considering the toxicity that attends most migration issues — is a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to its values as a beacon to the world’s most desperate people. That commitment must be sustained as the war in Ukraine drags on, which seems likely.
But the board doesn’t want that beacon to shine too brightly for all the world’s most desperate people — such as Haitian asylum seekers.
‘Inhumane to incentivize migrants’
After the Del Rio incident, the board expressed umbrage on Sept. 20, 2021 that “Haitian migrants, virtually all Black, are being subjected to expulsion on a scale that has not been directed at lighter-skinned Central Americans.”
Yet this was quickly balanced by the editorial board’s indignation at Biden’s “on-the-ground leniency” toward migrants that “led many or most of [the Haitians at Del Rio] toward the border.” The board wrote that Biden had suggested he would “relax the previous administration’s draconian policies” for “others, especially Central American families with children, tens of thousands of whom have been admitted to the United States this year,” thereby encouraging Haitians to come but then expelling them by the thousands. “The policy is inhumane,” the board lamented; “equally, it is inhumane to incentivize migrants to risk the perilous, expensive journey across Central America and Mexico.”
What the board is suggesting here is that the policy of sending away migrants who have a right to seek asylum in the U.S., and will almost certainly face a dire situation upon arrival in their home country, is equal in its inhumanity to reducing the use of that policy — because that incentivizes more people to exercise their right to seek asylum.
So what’s the answer to this conundrum? Ultimately the board pinned the blame on “partisanship in Congress” that has “doomed” attempts at comprehensive immigration reform. That analysis implies that any sort of immediate relief for actual Haitians is not a priority for the Post editorial board, regardless of their suffering.
After the Del Rio incident, the Biden administration cleared out the migrant camp the Haitians were staying in, and most were flown to Haiti or fled to Mexico to avoid that fate. Many Democrats criticized Biden for the treatment of the Haitian migrants, but on Oct. 13, 2021, the Washington Post’s editorial board argued that those critics “fail[ed] to acknowledge the political, logistical and humanitarian risks of lax border enforcement.”
The headline of that editorial, “How the Biden Administration Can Help Haitian Migrants Without Sending the Wrong Message,” clearly signaled the board’s priorities; when advocating for helping Ukrainians, the editorial board never betrayed any concern that such help might send the wrong message.
While it’s “easy to sympathize with the impulse behind” calls to end Title 42, and to grant Haitian refugees asylum if they are judged to have a “reasonable possibility of fear,” the board wrote, “the trouble is that it would swiftly incentivize huge numbers of new migrants to make the perilous trek toward the southern border.”
They argued that their concern wasn’t theoretical; it was “proved” by the “surge” of Haitian asylum seekers “driven in large part by the administration’s increasingly sparing use of Title 42″ — implying that the human rights of Haitian migrants must be judiciously balanced against the supposed threat of a “surge” of them at the border. The board members concluded that “Americans broadly sympathize with the admission of refugees and asylum seekers, but a precondition of that support is a modicum of order in admissions.” First comes order, then come the Washington Post editorial board’s sympathies.
Two months later, in late December 2021, the editorial board argued that the mass expulsion of Haitian migrants was “deeply troubling,” quoting a United Nations report that Haitians are “living in hell.” And yet they found themselves unable to forcefully condemn the Biden administration’s continued use of Title 42 to prevent Haitians from exercising their right to seek asylum, arguing that the policy is “politically defensible,” since “Americans do not want to encourage a chaotic torrent of illegal immigration.” The strongest umbrage they could muster was to call the situation “worth a policy review, to say the least.”
‘Main export is asylum seekers’
The Washington Post’s editorial board is clearly very aware of the plight of Haitian refugees. As they pointed out in an editorial in May calling for a “concerted, muscular diplomatic push” to address the Haitian government’s lack of legitimacy, they wrote that for those deported to Haiti, their “chances of finding work are abysmal, but the possibility that they will be victimized amid the pervasive criminality is all too real.”
The board has been vocal, according to an editorial in July, about calling for U.S. policy change toward Haiti to reduce the “human misery” — and the “outflow of refugees” — arguing that “deportation is a poor substitute for policy.” Recently, it has ramped up its rhetoric, even suggesting in August the idea of a military intervention in Haiti; in its most recent callfor intervention, on Oct. 11, the board argued:
It is unconscionable for the Western Hemisphere’s richest country to saddle the poorest with a stream of migrants amid an economic, humanitarian and security meltdown.
But it’s the country, not its people, at the center of concern here. At no point in the piece are those people, or the impact of U.S. policy on them, described. (Certainly it’s never suggested that “these could be your children.”) Worse, the board calls Haiti a “failed state whose main export is asylum seekers,” reducing those asylum seekers to objects. (One might add that comparing Black human beings to “exports” shows a callous disregard for Haitian — and U.S. — history.)
The board wants intervention in Haiti in part to relieve the “humanitarian suffering” in the country, according to an editorial in late September—but it’s not ashamed to put “death and despair” in the same sentence as “a steady or swelling tide of refugees” as the two things the Biden administration should be seeking to prevent via such an intervention.
The source of the discrepancy between its position on Ukrainian and Haitian refugees seems to be that the Washington Post editorial board sees them as fundamentally different problems. Ukrainians fleeing violence and instability are themselves at risk and need help; Haitians fleeing violence and instability are a risk to the United States.
That framing of the problem was perhaps most clear in their editorial on Dec. 10, 2021, condemning Biden’s support for Haiti’s “corrupt, autocratic and brutal” then-President Jovenel Moïse:
As with Central American migrants, the problem of illegal immigrants from Haiti can be mitigated only by a concerted U.S. push to address problems at the source.
Haitian migrants are, to the editorial board, more a problem for the U.S. than human beings with problems of their own.
And the editorial board’s use of the term “illegal immigrant” — a dehumanizing and inaccurate slur the widely-used Associated Press style guide nixed ten years ago — is also telling. The board repeatedly refers in its editorials on Haiti to “illegal border crossings” and “surges.” But as mentioned previously, Haitians, like Ukrainians — and the Central American migrants the editorial board dreads in the same breath as Haitians — are legally entitled to come to the U.S. border and seek asylum. In fact, to request asylum, migrants are required to present themselves on U.S. soil. The only thing that makes their crossings “illegal” is Title 42, which itself is clearly illegal, despite judicial contortions to keep it in place. Yet it seems the moral (and legal) imperative to offer the opportunity to seek asylum must always be balanced, in the editorial board’s view, with their fears of an unruly mob at the border.
‘An enduring gift to their new country’
Early on in the Ukraine War, some journalists came under criticism for singling out Ukrainian refugees for sympathy, in either explicit or implicit contrast to refugees from non-white countries. CBS‘s Charlie D’Agata, for instance, told viewers on Feb. 25 that:
[Ukraine] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that, it’s going to happen.
“They seem so like us,” wrote Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph on Feb. 26. “That is what makes it so shocking.”
Both journalists were white; it is perhaps worth noting that nine of the ten members of the Washington Post editorial board are likewise white.
And yet the differential treatment it accords migrant groups may go beyond racism or classism for the editorial board; in April, the board published an editorial headlined, “Don’t Forget the Afghan Refugees Who Need America’s Support.” In it, the board asked, “Why can’t the administration stand up a program for U.S.-based individuals and groups to sponsor Afghan refugees to come here, as it has done for Ukrainians?”
Earlier, in late August, the board had argued that Afghan refugees “will become as thoroughly American as their native-born peers, and their energy, ambition and pluck will be an enduring gift to their new country.”
The Afghanistan case illustrates that the Washington Post editorial board doles out its sympathy on political, not just racial, terms: Afghans, like Ukrainians, are presented as victims of enemies the Washington Post editorial board has devoted considerable energy to vilifying — the Taliban on the one hand, Russia on the other. The plights of Haitians (and Central Americans), by contrast, can in no small part be traced back to U.S. intervention—something the editorial board has little appetite for castigating.
And Afghans, for the most part, have not been arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, which is clearly a site of anxiety for the board, with its fear of “surges” and lawlessness.
The humanization and sympathy the board offers to both Afghans, and especially the Ukrainians that “could be your children,” is never offered to Haitians. Their circumstances are described, sometimes in dire language, but they themselves — their “pluck,” their “children pressed against the windows of a bus or train sobbing or waving goodbye to their fathers and other relatives who remain behind” — remain invisible and, ultimately, unworthy.
This article was first published by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
Julie Hollar, who has a PhD in political science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is FAIR’s senior analyst and managing editor.