Haitian Refugees Are Not Dogs: Learning From the Canaanite Woman

In April, the Biden administration resumed deporting Haitian refugees back to Haiti, a country that has been experiencing upheaval due to natural disasters, political chaos, and exploitative Western intervention. In 2021, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home, and Ariel Henry, who took power shortly after the assassination, resigned from his post this April. Gang members, led by leader Jimmy Chérizier, known as Babekyou in Haitian Creole, have snatched power from the political elite and taken to the streets to enforce their own set of laws. These recent events are only a snapshot of issues that have stricken Haiti since 1804. Despite the familiarity of home, Haitian citizens are attempting to leave their country to flee to the United States and neighboring countries in hopes of a better life. Some Haitians are doing this illegally.

But what does it mean to enter a country illegally? What are we to make of borders and those who seek to cross them?

Senator Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) has said, “I cannot support illegal mass migration because the job of elected officials is to protect their citizens first, not anyone else’s.” Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa insists that a borderland is “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.” For Anzaldúa, a “border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge.” In other words, borders are simply fictitious boundaries meant to separate, dictate, and police the movement of the most vulnerable people — a tangible way to distinguish, as Rubio does, the “aliens” from the citizens.

As a first-generation Haitian-American raised in a Haitian Baptist church, I recognized first-hand the need to flee long before Haiti’s most recent political unrest. My own family immigrated to the U.S. in 2001 and we lived in Spring Valley, N.Y., a town with the second-largest concentration of Haitians in the country.

I remember my third-grade classroom being filled with new Haitian classmates after the 2010 earthquake; I remember the children’s choir and church pews being filled with new members. Though the church celebrated their arrival and prayed for those still trying to come to the U.S., it did not take an active role in helping people cross the border — legally or otherwise. But in a time of chaos, people cannot wait on bureaucratic processes. Haitian migrants are still attempting to enter the U.S. by any means that they can. The United States should let them in.

When thinking about manufactured borders and the barriers that marginalized people face to receive aid, I think of the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. In pursuit of healing for her daughter who is “tormented by a demon,” the unnamed Canaanite woman transgresses multiple boundaries. Upon shouting out to Jesus for her daughter to be healed, she is publicly ridiculed by Jesus and the disciples and referred to as a “dog.” The Canaanites were considered aliens in their own right, marked by thousands of years of displacement from their land by the Jews. Jesus himself instructed the disciples to “go nowhere among Gentiles” in Matthew 10:5. Bible scholar Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz, points to this interaction as an example of “the fight against the original inhabitants to possess the land of Canaan and the ancient monarchy of Israel.”

Although the woman is surely aware of the boundaries existing between herself as a Canaanite and Jesus and his disciples as Jews, she is desperate enough to endure insult and entreat Jesus. Despite being labeled a “dog,” the woman has the gall to retort back to Jesus and demand that he see her humanity, despite cultural differences. Such an attempt snaps Jesus back into reality, and he praises her persistence, saying, “Woman, you have great faith.” In that moment, her daughter is healed. Her wish is granted. Guardiola-Sáenz sees the woman as a “dispossessed Canaanite woman demanding the right to be treated as a human being and not as a dog.”

Many Haitains hoped that President Joe Biden’s extension of the Temporary Protected Status in December of 2022 would make it so that they’d be treated less like dogs and more like humans. TPS is “a designation that gives [immigrants] time-limited permission to live and work in the United States and avoid potential deportation.” However, the TPS designation for Haitians will end in August, despite pleas from advocates to extend the designation.

Speaking with The Haitian Times in April, a migrant using the pseudonym Jessica Joseph was unsuccessful in her attempt to flee to Nicaragua. At the time of the interview, Joseph had been deported back to Haiti and was seeking shelter at a hotel in Cap-Haïtien. Despite these setbacks, she was still adamant about trying to flee the country again because it had become impossible to “make a living in Haiti.”

From January to August of 2023,the threat of rape rose 49 percent in Haiti. Massive school closures have barred children from receiving necessary education. Every day, Haitian citizens must grapple with the sudden murders of their loved ones and attempt to provide them with a proper burial.

Like the Canaanite woman, many Haitians are becoming desperate enough to cross borders and transgress cultural mores. Jesus allowed himself to be corrected by the woman and decided to help her. The question for Christians in the United States is this: Will we do the same?

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