On the same day that 509 Haitians landed back in Haiti from an evacuated migrant camp in Del Rio, Texas, this week, hundreds of undocumented Haitians were spotted wading in the crystal blue waters off an uninhabited cay in the southern Bahamas after their green and yellow wooden sloop sank.
Believing they were en route to Florida, the 400 or so migrants were finally apprehended over three days by Bahamian authorities and taken from the Ragged Cay Island chain to the island of Great Inagua, where they joined some 500 other Haitian nationals who had been apprehended days earlier.
Despite the repatriation of more than 3,400 Haitians from the United States’ southern border with Mexico and the clearing a week ago of two camps, one underneath an international bridge in Del Rio and the other across from the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuña, the Haitian migration problem continues and may be getting worse.
While border crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border are at their highest levels in 20 years, creating political pressure on President Joe Biden, they are also creating headaches for governments throughout the hemisphere.
From Argentina and Chile in the south, to all of Central America, to even Guyana, tucked between Brazil and Venezuela, Latin American governments are grappling with an influx of Haitian migrants as they either transit through their nations or seek temporary shelter while waiting to get to the United States.
“They enter Guyana and they do not remain here. Very few leave through the channels they came. These people are being smuggled,” Anil Nandlall, Guyana’s attorney general and minister of legal affairs said in June after 10 undocumented Haitian children were dropped off at a hotel by speedboat from neighboring Suriname.
In Mexico, where the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said about 8,000 Haitians returned after fleeing the Del Rio encampment, it’s estimated that there are anywhere between 30,000 to 35,000 Haitian migrants. Many of them, U.S. officials believe, are either waiting to see how U.S. immigration policy will shake out before attempting to illegally cross, while others are hoping to win asylum in Mexico. The latter is a difficult achievement, given that most of the migrant left Haiti and its volatile politics years ago, making it difficult to claim fear of political persecution.
Another 5,000 migrants, who have been making their way through South America, were waiting Tuesday to cross the river on the border between Colombia and Panama. The area, known as the Darien Gap, is 66 miles of dense mountains, treacherous swamps and river, and venomous snakes.
Meanwhile, in Haiti, smugglers are starting to target those along the southern peninsula that was ravaged by the magnitude 7.2 earthquake on Aug. 14.
Haitians in the quake-ravaged areas are smuggled north, said Giuseppe Loprete, head of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration. “They think they are going to Florida and they are intercepted” at sea.
Though the numbers in the Bahamas are small compared to those at the Texas border, they are a sign of the larger problem, as countries in Latin America and the Caribbean report large pockets of Haitians either on the move or waiting to move.
“We’re watching all those movements closely,” said a DHS official.
DHS acknowledged that it was caught off guard by the speed with which a large number of migrants ended up under the Del Rio International Bridge, which at its peak was close to 15,000 people, most of them Haitian. An investigation is ongoing, the agency has said, into what it believes was a smuggling operation behind the border rush.
But if Del Rio underscored anything, it’s that the problem is not one solely a U.S. “border crisis.”
On Tuesday, during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Dominican Foreign Minister Roberto Alvarez raised his nation’s concerns about the migration crisis and Haiti, with which it shares the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic is both a transit point for Haitians seeking to get into Latin America to reach the U.S. and also a destination for those seeking to escape their homeland’s armed gangs, rampant kidnappings and high unemployment.
“It’s a regional problem that needs to be tackled,” Alvarez told the Miami Herald about the Haitian migration crisis.
Alvarez’s visit to Washington came days after Dominican President Luis Abinader and the presidents of Panama and Costa Rica formed an informal alliance on the sidelines of last week’s United Nations General Assembly around a number of issues, including Haitian migration. Panama has said it had 80,000 Haitians transit through the country so far this year.
Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols and National Security Council Senior Director Juan Gonzalez are traveling to Haiti this week with plans to meet with civil society groups, Prime Minister Ariel Henry and Foreign Minister Claude Joseph. Haiti’s migration response will be among the topics raised, a State Department official said, declining to discuss the specifics of the diplomatic discussions with the Dominican Republic.
“We have a shared responsibility with affected governments in the region and the international community to promote migration management,” a State Department official told the McClatchy Washington Bureau and the Miami Herald. “We are in close communication with other countries in the region to address the challenges of irregular migration.”
The official said the administration is closely coordinating with regional governments, including Mexico, Brazil, Chile and the Dominican Republic, on the ongoing crisis, without providing details. A statement from DHS on Wednesday said it is asking countries in the region to “ensure they too are doing their part to offer protection for vulnerable populations and receive individuals who had legal status there. “
“What’s coming out of Del Rio,” said the DHS official, “is a renewed regional focus on this issue.”
“I think you’re seeing a lot of the governments in the transit route starting to try to coordinate efforts and try to figure out what to do with this,” he added. “And that also includes, obviously, conversations with Brazil and Chile. Because ultimately, those were the countries where many of these migrants initially settled and built lives.”
So far that coordination doesn’t appear to be bearing fruit.
Louis Herns Marcelin, an anthropologist who has been studying Haiti’s migration trends and closely following the move to South America after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, said while migration was expected after the recent quake left thousands dead and more than 139,000 homes destroyed, what is happening is unprecedented.
“Usually when they go, they go in waves of 500 or a thousand,” said Marcelin, the director of the University of Miami’s Global Health Studies program who leads the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development in Haiti that is studying migration between Haiti, Brazil and Chile. “This is the first time we are seeing this surge and we understand why.”
While the lure of jobs in Brazil and Chile, compounded by political turmoil and natural disasters in Haiti, led many to leave in the first place, COVID-19, stringent immigration policies and racism are now forcing them to flee countries where they had settled. Meanwhile, returning to Haiti, where the president was assassinated in July and the streets of the capital have become a free-for-all for kidnap gangs, is not an option.
Sirianne Petit-Vil, 38, is among an estimated 1,200 Haitians who remain in Ciudad Acuña, according to Doctors Without Borders. Living at a refugee shelter, she arrived in Mexico from Chile three weeks ago. After spending five days underneath the Del Rio bridge with her 3-year-old son, she left, she said, fearing deportation to Haiti.
‘”I honestly don’t know where to go,” said Petit-Vil, who has a 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old back in Haiti. “If I could find the possibility to stay in Mexico and work, I would. I can’t say I would return to Chile. It’s not easy for people who didn’t have status and the situation in Haiti is worse.”
Petit-Vil said she migrated to Chile in 2016 and spent five years unable to get work authorization. When COVID-19 hit, life became more complicated when authorities required people to go to the police to get a document to move about; a paper migrants can’t get if they lacked legal residency in the country. “Going to the supermarket was difficult, so I don’t have to tell you about going to work,” she said.
Marcelin said the inability of Haitians to support themselves or their families is a driving factor in the migration crisis. In the case of Chile, a wave of xenophobia and anti-Haitian sentiment are helping to push Haitians out.
“In Brazil, the economic situation isn’t that much better. Things are getting worse even for Brazilians,” he said. “There are strong motivations, strong structural reasons why people want to move away from where they are even when they have, for example, … some kind of documentation.”
U.S. preparing for another wave
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday that the events in Del Rio may have served as a deterrent for another wave — but said that the administration is preparing for additional influxes.
“I would note that, while there are a number of people who are in the immigration proceedings process, there are also thousands of people who went back across the border when they realized they could not stay here, and could not stay in the camp, and would not be able to stay in the United States,” Psaki said. “So there are some deterrence mechanisms that have been put in place. Obviously our Department of Homeland Security continues to prepare in any scenario as we look to migrants coming to approach the border.”
Unlike the migrants who are ending up in the Bahamas, those who ended up both in Del Rio and on the Mexican side had lived in Brazil, Chile or other Latin American countries for years before ending up in Mexico.
Some of those who ended up in the camp and on deportation flights back to Haiti had legal residency in Brazil, while a number of migrants had legal status in Chile. However, instead of being returned to those countries, they were taken back to Haiti.
In Mexico, where the government has been trying to take the Haitians far away from the U.S. border after raiding camps and putting them on flights, the IOM says it is “actively looking for alternatives other than return to Haiti for those who have other options.”
“Should migrants be willing to return, and should concerned [nations] be in agreement, IOM is ready to offer its expertise through its Assisted Voluntary Return Program to help these migrants,” the agency said after confirming that it had formally asked Brazil to receive Haitians camped along the U.S.-Mexico border.
While not a hard sell for those who were returned to Haiti and who are already planning their return to South America, it may be more difficult to persuade those in Mexico or en route to the border who are still holding out hope of getting to the U.S.
“The whole idea of the journey was to use Brazil or whatever country in Latin America as a kind of entryway, a kind of transitional space to get to a better place, and the better place remains the United States, El Dorado,” Marcelin said.
His research team is currently following a group of migrants crossing the Darien Gap as part of the Migration, Equality and Development hub. The group has discovered that almost all of those Haitians have family members in the Dominican Republic, in the U.S. or in Canada who are sending them money to help pay for unanticipated costs arising from their exploitation along the journey.
“The idea that we cannot inhabit any place safely, starting from our home to wherever we are, has led to a concerted effort by Haitians and the Haitian diaspora, mostly among the poor, to fund and finance at all costs, those trips however dangerous they may be,” Marcelin said.
The team’s research has shown that of the Haitians leaving Haiti, 60% have either some university education or are enrolled at a university. Of the rest, about 80% have some secondary schooling.
“It’s a huge challenge that Haiti will be facing in order to rebuild Haiti,” Marcelin said. “All of our capacity has been totally extracted, sucked out by the migration process. What is paradoxical in all of this is that we have the poorest country in the Americas, which… is providing cheap labor, in some instances, qualified cheap labor to Latin America and financing an elaborate informal economy around migration in the countries they traverse.”
Marcelin said the lesson for the U.S. in the current migration crisis is that it has to change the way it engages Haiti and Haitians to address the country’s challenges.
“The U.S. needs to understand that building a country from the bottom up is better than reinforcing oppressive structures that have crumbled over time, from the top down,” he said. “If the U.S. invests in transforming the security and rule of law situation in Haiti, in community-based and civil society organizations in rural areas, and involves youth organizations and programs that target economic entrepreneurship… they will have a ripple effect.
Haitians are leaving, Marcelin said, and refusing to return because they see no future for themselves in their native land.
“People cannot imagine a future. The idea of the future is tied to security; people have to feel safe. They need to be able to invest and earn a living. Without these critical elements in place they will always look abroad.”
McClatchy White House correspondent Bryan Lowry contributed reporting.
This story was originally published September 29, 2021 4:07 PM.