Haitians south of the border: A tale of two cities

Eight years after an earthquake took the lives of 200,000 Haitians, their world still reels from the consequences of that tragedy. For Haitians, January is already a month of sadness as families consider the devastation that nature can wreak on this tiny nation. Adding to this tragedy were two other blows that came from the Trump administration this month: the announcement of an end to the Temporary Protected Status that had been given Haitians who had entered the United States after January 2011 and the derogatory remarks by our Commander in Chief about Haitians in the Oval Office, coincidently on the anniversary of the 2010 earthquake.

This poor Caribbean country has not yet recovered from the consequences of losing so many citizens. Even though the camps of Haitians who remain homeless have disappeared from the streets of Port Au Prince, the city still lacks basic infrastructure that was destroyed during the earthquake. What was rebuilt was damaged by Hurricane Matthew in September 2016. And jobs for Haitians who remain are almost non-existent. The derogatory comments made by President Donald Trump about Haiti being a “shithole” country underscored the disdain he has for those victims of the worst natural disaster.

In contrast to the United States’ approach to Haitians is a story of compassion that is taking place just across our southwest border in the city of Tijuana. That bustling border town of over a million residents has become a magnet for Haitians who made the trek across South American and up the Darien peninsula to Central America to try and take advantage of the Temporary Protective Status (TPS) that had been offered by the U.S. to Haitians before things changed in 2016 at the end of the Obama administration. haiti tijuana immigration trumpThat is when Secretary for Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, declared that our open doors for Haitians would close and deportations would start since conditions in Haiti had improved. But had they?

News of this decision reverberated among the Haitian diaspora, many of whom had been admitted to Brazil after the earthquake. The government of Brazil in 2010, like the United States, offered broad humanitarian entry to those from Haiti seeking a new life. And for a while life in Brazil was good. There were jobs in the construction sector as Brazilians were quickly building for the upcoming 2016 Olympics. But then the economy went belly-up and, of course, Haitians were among the most vulnerable as construction jobs dried up. A massive economic downturn in 2015 resulted in lost jobs and lost hope. This was also coupled with news from the United States that Temporary Protective Status for Haitian earthquake victims would end in 2017. The cross-border rumor mill catalyzed the Haitians living in Brazil, who decided it was time to make a run for the U.S. border. But how to do it from Brazil?

A combination of events changed the trajectory for Haitians fleeing to Brazil.

With little resources, many Haitians (mostly men) decided that a transcontinental route was their only solution for going north toward the United States. With the use of traffickers and taking their scant resources, Haitians risked their lives traveling across the Amazon, into Colombia, and across the Darien peninsula through Panama, wending their way to Mexico.

In early 2016 Mexican immigration authorities started to see an influx of Haitians. Coming through the border with Guatemala at Tapachula, Haitians started what they believed would be their final march to the U.S. border. Many headed to Tijuana since the rumor mill among the diaspora noted that it might be easier to cross there than at Laredo or Juarez. But Tijuana is a city in Baja California, among the furthest border crossing points from the Haitian’s point of entry. The idea, however, was to get to U.S. immigration authorities to designate them eligible for Temporary Protective Status before the program ended. The irony, however, was that only Haitians who were in the United States by January 12, 2011, the first anniversary of the earthquake, were eligible to apply for protected status. Those arriving from Brazil were not eligible.

In September 2016 the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to undocumented Haitians in route to the southwestern border with Mexico: If you don’t turn around you will be deported back to Haiti. At the time Johnson issued his 2016 order of rescinding TPS for Haitians there were as many as 40,000 Haitians in transit through other Central and South American nations from Brazil headed to the southwest border with Mexico. Yet these warnings went unheeded or those traveling were in a state of denial.

haiti tijuana immigration trumpIn 2016 and early 2017 Haitians started pouring into Tijuana. And they came in droves. The sheer numbers overwhelmed the downtown shelters. At one point some shelters that had room for 30 people, usually Mexicans that the U.S. deported, were occupied by hundreds of Haitians who were headed in the opposite direction. The Salesian mission very close to the actual San Isidro crossing was overwhelmed to the point where they could no longer house and feed the Haitians entering the city. An interview with the director, Claudia Portela, told me the Haitians who arrived had been told that they would get better treatment at San Isidro than at other Ports of Entry along the United States Border. But the city and its services were not prepared for this type of disruption. A real emergency existed when 10-15 Haitians arrived each day at the mission’s doorsteps.

According to official records, the number of Haitians crossing the US border at San Isidro in FY 2015 was 339. After October 2015 to the end of fiscal 2016, there were more than 5000 Haitians seeking admission at the border. This increase overwhelmed the capacity of the border facility. This resulted in DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson treating Haitians at the border like any other immigrant—if they did not have grounds for asylum then they were sent to an immigration judge to issue an order of deportation. Those Haitians with TPS were not included in this 2016 order.

U.S. border officials started noticing an increased number of Haitians arriving at the border in San Diego. They had taken dangerous smuggling routes to apply for admission to the US in the San Diego California San Isidro crossing. This onslaught tested the capacities of both the U.S. and Mexican governments. DHS officials suggested that Haitians in transit return to Brazil. But the U.S. could not return people to Brazil without that government’s agreement. Central American countries also claimed another migration crisis.

Recent interviews with Mexican immigration officials told a harrowing tale of being overwhelmed by Haitians, receiving little help from U.S. authorities, no response from the Haitian embassy in Mexico City, and no assistance from the United Nations since those arriving in Mexico were not refugees but displaced persons.  With limited resources, they worked with local charities and police to accommodate this growing influx. The Mexican immigration agency is very underfunded given the needs in Baja California according to the information officials provided in late December.

During the height of the migration crisis of Haitians at the US border, there were over 22,000 arrivals in the course of a year. While this may seem like a small number of people in a city like Tijuana, whose population has soared to 1.3 million, this sudden increase caught the Mexican immigration authorities off guard, with little help from the United States, from international organizations, or from the government of Haiti. Until after the 2017 elections in Haiti the government had not responded to requests for assistance by Mexican authorities, according to one immigration official I interviewed in late December.

In conversations with immigration officials in Baja California, it is clear that the government of Mexico took a more humane approach to dealing with this new migration. As it became clear to the Haitians that seeking to enter the United States was no longer an option, the Mexican government started processing Haitians, granting them temporary residency cards and access to health benefits. This allowed the migrants to seek employment. A recent visit to Tijuana revealed that many of those who had originally wanted to enter the United States are now working in hotels, restaurants, and also in the informal sector as street vendors and day laborers. Others have been able to receive educational benefits or scholarships.

Living Room of the Homesick

Food has become a proxy for homeland in restaurants that open in an adopted country. They are described by anthropologists as “living rooms of the homesick.” A place to eat is often the only connection that a diaspora has with its home country. Tastes and smells of food often provide comfort when someone arrives in a strange land. They are also centers where immigrants can gather and share information and friendship, speak their native tongue, and return, even for a few minutes, to the memories of family and home.

haiti tijuana immigration trumpA tale of Haitian migration is summed up in a small business that opened in Tijuana to cater to its newest residents. Loncheria Dulce, once a Mexico dining place near the border crossing and the Salesian Mission that had once housed Haitian migrants at the peak of the crisis, has become Comida Haitiana. This narrow and unremarkable kitchen and dining room has a history of goodwill and necessity behind its walls. Once the property of a Mexican cook, Fausta Rosalia and her husband Jose Luis Bernabe, the kitchen has been converted into a luncheon place that specializes in Haitian foods like fried chicken, rice and beans, and some Mexican foods such as chilaquiles and fruit shakes. This Mexican couple bet on the need for Haitians to have a place where they could prepare food that was more a taste of home than the traditional Mexican fare that Haitians rejected. And they were right. The three Haitians working behind the counter, two cooks and a helper, eagerly await their daily clientele who seek the flavors of home. Today there are 3000 Haitians in Baja California—2000 in Tijuana and the rest in Mexicali.

A visit to this small establishment revealed an unremarkable kitchen and an eating space with red plastic tablecloths. But it also evoked a sense of belonging that food often conveys, no matter how far from home. The three Haitians who ran the place did not want to give their names, but they told me that their journey began in Santa Catarina in Brazil. Ironically, Santa Catarina, one of Brazil’s southernmost states, is also one that boasts the highest per capita income and a high level of economic well-being.

The two cooks, a couple, had traveled far—crossing over land from the heart of South America all the way to Baja California. “It took three months to get to Chiapas. We used every form of transport—air, boat and finally on foot.” The journey, which took three months, was a test of the resilience that Haitians demonstrate in the face of so many obstacles to a new life. Like others who make this trek, they often encountered smugglers and lost documents, money, and much more on this 4000-mile journey.

I bought a takeaway lunch—a tray brimming with rice, beans, and chicken—for the sum of 50 Pesos (around $3.00 US). I later learned that this was the price for “gringos”; Haitians were charged 45 pesos. But I also had a taste of Haiti that many longed for in a city so far from Haiti. As I left the line for lunch was forming. It underscores the connection between food and memory.

Food for the Soul

Pastor Gustavo Banda, a Mexican evangelical preacher with a larger Haitian following, has a church and sanctuary for Haitians in a remote corner of Tijuana—the Valley of Alarcranes (scorpions). His Templo de Embajadores de Jesus, the Temple of Jesus’s Ambassador, serves as a symbol of how the faith-based community has reached out to Tijuana’s newest residents.

haiti tijuana immigration trumpDriving into the community where his church was located I had the feeling I was back in one of the gang-filled neighborhoods of Port Au Prince. Desolate unpaved roads, deep ravines with pigs rooting around with their piglets for garbage. It seemed an unlikely place for so many young Haitians coming across half a continent to find hope. But Pastor Banda sees in this newest group of worshippers an opportunity to build his folk.

At least that is what others I interviewed told me. His mission is to ensure that those Haitians who want to stay in Mexico get support, food, and hopefully a job. Along with his wife, Zaida Guillen, his mission has given succor to more than 300 Haitians at the peak of the migration to Mexico. Today, the church building serves as a dormitory and dining room by day, and on weekends hosts a large space for church services. While visiting the church I met Marie, a cook from the Haitian village of Cabaret. According to the pastor she arrived with a broken leg and was in bad shape. Today, at 65, she walks around cooking up pots of rice and beans, chicken and soups, supporting her compatriots through her cooking skills.

A Tale of Two Cities

The events of 2010 in Haiti reverberate in places as unlikely as the western US-Mexican border. Those Haitians who have made it to Mexico have experienced a more welcoming environment in terms of government policy. This is in sharp contrast to the treatment that our government has given to a people so impacted by the forces of nature. Unlike the United States, Mexico has provided a more humane approach to those Haitians who arrived at their door in a most incredible route through Brazil to try and make it to the United States.

But this story is not over. Haitians, while appreciated by the Tijuana community as hard workers and reliable residents, have also suffered at the hands of gangs and petty criminals who prey on newcomers. The Mexican Human Rights Commission is reviewing their experience and is about to make recommendations. There are surely many changes that are needed to help address the migrations that are ongoing in this region.

What remains is a lesson for all of us in the United States when it comes to the treatment of immigrants. Even as we brand Mexico a fragile state where the rule of law is inconsistent and corruption and criminality remain a challenge to governance, the treatment of Haitian migrants and their integration into the socio-economic life of the city stands in sharp contrast to the mean-spirited approach that our own President has chosen to deal with people who are different, who are poor, and who are black. Yes, there is still racism in Mexico. Haitians are frequent victims of crimes and stand out in a city with few citizens of African descent. But for now, the government of Mexico is considering the renewal of temporary visas, and for residents of Tijuana Haitians represent another source of reliable labor in a city whose economy is booming.