SAN DIEGO – Over the past year, more than 5,000 Haitians entered the United States legally through the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing between Mexico and San Diego, California, after making a 7,000-mile (11,000km) overland trek from Brazil.
Their journeys can be traced back to the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti, initially displacing 1.5 million people, claiming more than 200,000 lives, and laying the groundwork for a cholera epidemic that affected hundreds of thousands more.
Now, an estimated 5,000 further Haitians who traveled from Brazil are stranded in Tijuana on the Mexican border. With the number of Haitian arrivals growing, they often wait weeks for interviews with U.S border officials.
Migrant outreach centers in the border city are at full capacity, and tents serve as makeshift shelters. It looks, said Sam Jean-Francois, a San Diego-based Haitian-American volunteer, like a “refugee camp.”
What faces them on the other side of the border is no less concerning – detention and possible deportation.
The Road From Brazil
Haitians were first issued “humanitarian visas” to Brazil in 2010, at a time when unemployment was at a historic low. Diplomats at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington told Refugees Deeply that since then, around 90,000 Haitians have left their country and sought work in Brazil. “Today, however, we are facing a dire recession,” said an embassy official, who asked not to be named. Current unemployment rates are over 10 percent, pushing more Haitians to head north.
American immigration officials believe tens of thousands are en route to the U.S. They travel by car, boat, bus and on foot.
“People just falling down and dying from malnutrition or thirst, people being raped, robberies … I have heard a lot of stories,” said Jean-Francois, who volunteers with community groups helping the new arrivals in San Diego. “It’s heartbreaking. They come with a few personal effects – the shoes on their feet and the clothes on their backs.”
In a policy initiated after the 2010 earthquake, Haitians were granted what has been described as “humanitarian parole,” allowing them to stay in the U.S. temporarily – with options for renewal – and legally.
Undocumented Haitians entering the U.S. through San Ysidro – America’s busiest border crossing – were exempt from “fast-track” deportation applied to other nationals and granted Temporary Protected Status in the U.S., a label allowing them to remain stateside until Haiti was deemed safe enough to return.
Last year, numbers tapered off – only 339 Haitians were stopped at the California border in 2015 – but rose sharply this year as Brazil’s recession worsened.
On September 22, this process came to a halt as Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced a policy shift resuming deportations of Haitians, citing improved conditions in their homeland – a claim contested by rights activists and policy advocates.
Johnson temporarily postponed deportations following the damage caused to Haiti by Hurricane Matthew less than two weeks later, on October 4.
Steven Forester, Miami-based immigration policy coordinator for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, described the initial reinstatement of deportations as “ludicrous.”
“It’s not safe to deport anyone to Haiti now,” he said. “When a hurricane like Matthew strikes, that’s what Temporary Protected Status was designed for.”
In an October 12 statement, Johnson added that “removal flights” were to resume “as soon as possible.”
Detention and Deportation
With a few exceptions, undocumented Haitians entering the U.S. since September 22 are immediately placed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers to await deportation to Haiti. They join another 2,700 other Haitians already in the detention system, according to a conservative estimate from nonprofit groups working on the crisis.
Christian Ramirez, human rights director with community empowerment organization Alliance San Diego, estimates that around a hundred Haitian nationals are presenting themselves each day at California’s ports of entry.
In some cases, women and children who arrived in the U.S. before September 22 have now been separated from husbands and fathers who tried to join them afterward. Ramirez said this policy has led to the separation of over 50 families.
“Primarily, women and children are paroled and able to be in the U.S. lawfully, and their husbands or fathers are in detention,” Ramirez explained. “It’s inhumane … this change in policy created an unnecessary burden on these families. They should be reunited immediately.”
It is unknown how long displaced Haitians will be detained. Haitian officials, struggling with the after effects of Hurricane Matthew, have not indicated that the country is ready to accommodate deportees.
“There will be a breaking point, and the government needs to figure out a policy solution to address the unique dynamics that differentiate the Haitian population from other displaced peoples that have arrived at this southern border,” Ramirez said. “It has turned into a humanitarian crisis.”
Recent Haitian arrivals to the U.S. are being cared for by relatives and community-based organizations in Miami, New York and San Diego.
Before the recent detention policy, the United Methodist Church, a small congregation in San Diego, had assumed much of the responsibility of meeting the basic needs of Haitians arriving at the U.S. border. Also home to a Haitian ministry, the church housed Haitians until friends and relatives facilitated their travel onward to Miami or New York, where large Haitian American communities are located. Some stayed for days, some for weeks or months.
“Shelter, food, medical attention: That was our first priority,” said Ramirez, whose organization supported local aid efforts. “We were in a very critical situation here, because we did not have enough beds to provide dignified shelter to hundreds of Haitians.”
Pastor Jean Elise Durandisse is originally from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, but had been in San Diego for eight years when the recent wave of displaced Haitians came across the border.
“People were on the street. I brought them to the church. After that, we provided shelter, basic needs. We became a refugee camp,” he said. “We couldn’t prepare for it. The community got together and they supported us, financially [and] with food.”
Jean-Francois, who has been a volunteer since May, said that without available public funds, resources for the displaced have been handled through private networks. “This is all by donation – the food, the water,” he said. “The church has taken on huge personal expenses themselves to house all of these people.”
Both Ramirez and Durandisse said that the number of arrivals had slowed down since the U.S. policy in September.
Yet on the Mexican side of the border, the numbers of Haitians have not dropped. Ramirez says community groups on both sides of the border will need to work together to meet the needs of stranded Haitians – a challenging but critical task.
The second part of this report will cover the advocacy groups lobbying for the next U.S. administration to take a fresh approach to the plight of displaced Haitians.