Gregory Bull/AP/File
A Haitian leans against a wall with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Tijuana, Mexico, Sept. 26, 2016. Haitian migrants are increasingly caught between being unable to seek asylum in the U.S. and a reluctance to return to dangerous conditions in Haiti.

Stuck in limbo: Haitians seeking refuge look anywhere but home

Still recovering from political imbalance and a devastating 2010 earthquake, Haitians trying to reach the U.S. have taken refuge in Mexico. But U.S. immigration policy is giving Haitians few options for entry, and assimilation in Mexico remains difficult. 

Haitians rejoiced when U.S. Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced last month an 18-month extension of protections for Haitians living in the United States, citing “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources, which are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The reprieve benefits an estimated 100,000 people who came after a devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti and are eligible for Temporary Protected Status, which gives a temporary haven to people fleeing countries struggling with civil strife or natural disasters.

Mr. Mayorkas noted that it doesn’t apply to Haitians outside the U.S. and said those who enter the country may be flown home. To qualify, Haitians must have been in the U.S. on May 21.

The Biden administration has dismayed some pro-immigration allies by sharply increasing repatriation flights to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The government chartered 14 flights in February and 10 in March, more than any other destination, before tapering off to six flights in April, according to Witness at the Border, an advocacy group that tracks U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flights.

Removals have continued despite Haiti’s political and humanitarian crises cited by U.S. officials in their decision to extend Temporary Protected Status. Kidnappings have become commonplace. UNICEF expects child malnutrition to double this year as an indirect consequence of the pandemic in a country where 1.1 million are already going hungry.

Adrián, who spoke on condition that his last name not be published to protect his wife’s identity, is among legions of Haitians who fled the Caribbean nation sometime after the 2010 earthquake. Many initially escaped to South America. He went to Chile, while others went to Brazil.

“Why do they send us back to Haiti?” he said outside a cheap Mexican hotel blocks from the border with El Paso, Texas, where he was living with his wife and about 20 other Haitians last month. “We don’t have anything there. There’s no security. ... I need a solution to not be sent back to my country.”

Adrián is trying to settle in to his third new city since 2016, when his wife was raped and mother was killed in Haiti. He will go anywhere but home.

As construction jobs for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro ended and Brazil descended into political turmoil, many Haitians crossed 10 countries by plane, boat, bus, and foot to get to San Diego, where U.S. authorities let them in on humanitarian grounds. But then-President Barack Obama shifted course and began deporting Haitian arrivals in 2016. Many then started calling Mexico home. 

Haitian restaurants opened in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, serving mangoes and mashed plantains. Factories that export to the U.S. recruited Haitians, who also wait tables and worship at congregations that have added services in Creole. 

In recent months, some Haitians have moved from Tijuana to Ciudad Juarez, another large border city with jobs at export-driven factories. They’re driven by job prospects, hopes of less racial discrimination, and a temptation to cross what they perceive to be less-guarded stretches of border.

The shift was evident Feb. 3 when U.S. authorities expelled dozens of Haitians to Ciudad Juarez, an apparent violation of pandemic-related powers that deny a right to seek asylum. Under the public health rules, only people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador can quickly be sent back to Mexico.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has acknowledged the Haitian expulsions but not explained why they were done.

“They are in transit,” said Nicole Phillips, legal director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, an advocacy group. “It’s very much a transitory population. They may start out in Tijuana and shift eastward. Other times they start east and shift to Tijuana.”

Adrián said he saw racial discrimination in Chile and Tijuana, where he worked in data entry for a company that assembled neck braces and other medical devices. He said he saw Mexicans getting paid more than twice as much for the same work.

He lost his job when his temporary work visa expired and heard that Ciudad Juarez had work. A straight shot by bus, he decided to take another chance on a new life.

During his first week in Ciudad Juarez last month, Adrián asked downtown merchants to let him sell items on the streets, which are still half-empty amid COVID-19. No one let him. Factories are known to hire foreigners, but he no longer had a work permit.

Adrián wants to settle in Ciudad Juarez and save money, saying he may try to get to the U.S. one day. For now, he fears being sent back to Haiti too much to risk applying for asylum or enter the country illegally.

A scar on the back of his head is from being pistol-whipped by an attacker in 2016, he says, and one on his left hand is from being tied up. He said his mother was targeted at her home and killed because she refused to participate in rallies for the Tet Kale party, whose presidential candidate, Jovenel Moïse, won the 2016 election.

Adrián believes the men who killed her and assaulted his wife worked for party bosses. He recognized one and went to the police, but nothing came of it.

Haiti has long been wracked by poverty and violence. In April, then-Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe resigned amid a spike in killings.

Other Haitians staying at the hotel with Adrián also had left Tijuana. Some said they would stay and try to find work; others said they wanted to go to the United States.

Some people who have been sent back to Haiti simply save for another attempt to cross into the U.S.

“I’ve been back in Haiti over nine months now. I’m struggling to stay alive,” said a mechanic in Port-au-Prince who was caught by border agents in South Texas. “Soon as I crossed into the U.S., police picked us up, and the guide was nowhere to be found.

The mechanic spoke on the condition of anonymity because he plans on crossing the border again. He said his vocational training hasn’t gotten him work in Haiti, though he plied his trade from Chile to Guatemala on his journey to the U.S.

Jean-Piere, another Haitian migrant who was trained as a mechanical engineer and spoke on condition that his last name not be published for safety reasons, spent two years in Tijuana. After moving to Ciudad Juarez and failing to find a job, he said he wants to go to the United States. He carries a folder with documents for an eventual asylum case.

He said his father died due to “political problems” stemming from his work for Haiti’s governing party.

“I can’t go back to my country,” Jean-Piere said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.

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