Diaspora

Americans treated us like animals. Then they deported us to Haiti – The Economist

by Jessica Obert
Gerome Louis* seemed nervous when I first met him outside a barbershop in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. On the phone he said he wanted to meet close to his home, in case anyone was following him. He spends most of his time indoors these days: “Every morning I hear…” His mouth mimicked gunfire: pow, pow, pow.
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Gang warfare has convulsed Haiti in recent months, along with a sharp rise in kidnappings. Louis’s own mother was kidnapped last year after she was overheard talking about her son, who was earning a good wage as a construction worker in Chile at the time. On her way to a mini-mart to buy medicine for her grandson she was shoved into the back of a small bus, and a hood was forced over her head. The criminals demanded 250,000 gourdes ($2,500): Louis and his siblings pooled their money; after she was freed, the family sent her to the Dominican Republic.
Haiti has long been beset by violence, poverty and weak government. Politicians and the Haitian elite are often in cahoots with armed gangs, which in many areas are more powerful than the police or army, and carry out crimes with impunity. More than half the population live below the poverty line. The problems have worsened since 2018 when protests erupted against President Jovenel Moïse, initially sparked by economic hardship and allegations of corruption. Moïse had been ruling by decree since January 2020, reminding some people of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s last despot, who was overthrown in 1986.
“People died like raindrops falling from the sky”
On July 7th Moïse was assassinated in his bedroom (it still isn’t clear by whom), leaving a political vacuum. Many Haitians wonder whose life is safe – and where. The state has almost entirely collapsed and the country has the world’s highest per-head kidnapping rate.
Louis grew up in Martissant, a neighbourhood in the Haitian capital now beset by gang warfare. His mother raised him and his three siblings alone, in a home with an almond tree in the garden, selling toiletries to make ends meet. She was known for feeding local hungry children: stall-holders at the local market knew Louis because he was her son.
Like many Haitians, Louis was exposed to violence very young. He remembers walking past dead bodies on the pavement on his way to school: a thief, a stranger or his neighbour, killed by gangs or in police shoot-outs. “You walk by and see them lying in their own blood…people died like raindrops falling from the sky.”
In 2010, when he was 16, an earthquake killed around 200,000 people in Haiti, including Louis’s best friend and his cousin. They’d all played basketball together at school that afternoon: Louis left early to visit his grandmother, but the others stayed behind. He remembers seeing survivors walking the streets like ghosts, covered in a white dust from collapsed buildings.
When Louis was three, his father left Haiti to work on cargo ships: he successfully applied for asylum in Miami after stealing his twin brother’s passport. Louis’s family, like many in Haiti, depended on money his father sent for schooling and other items (most schools in Haiti are private and many students can’t afford to continue their education). The diaspora sends more than $3.8bn a year back to Haiti, a third of the country’s GDP. Louis’s father would call from wherever the boat had docked – Curaçao, Jamaica or Trinidad. When he couldn’t send cash, Louis and his siblings had little to eat. His mother worried that Louis would come to harm in Haiti; that he’d offend someone and get killed. So in 2016, when he was 22, Louis went to Chile with money from his parents for university.
Chile was expensive. Once Louis had paid for rent, he didn’t have enough for his monthly tuition fee of $300. He lived with six other Haitian migrants in a three-bedroom house, their rooms partitioned with cardboard. It was in Chile that he met Sabrina*: he’d asked for her number outside a party, and it turned out they were both from Haiti. They began dating and soon moved in together. Louis got a job as a carpenter, which meant he was entitled to a five-year visa. Sabrina couldn’t work: she was one of 110,000 Haitians in Chile who were waiting for their visas to be approved.
“I’m not a thief, I’m not a murderer, I haven’t committed a crime. I was looking for refuge in a country and you denied it to me”
In February 2019 the couple had a daughter. Louis’s wages kept the family afloat in a rented, two-bedroom apartment in Santiago. If Louis had any money left after paying the bills he sent it to his family in Haiti, as his own father had done.
Though life in Chile was better than in Haiti, Louis worried that his carpenter’s salary alone wouldn’t be enough to give his daughter opportunities in life. His dream of moving to America seemed impossible until May 2021, when America’s Department of Homeland Security announced that it would grant Haitians Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Haitians in America could apply to stay and work there, to avoid the instability of their home country. Louis wasn’t eligible, but he saw it as a sign that the time was right to claim asylum. He let himself imagine going to university, studying at night school after work.
In June the family sold everything and left Chile by bus with 14 Haitian friends, neighbours and colleagues. One leg of their three-month-long journey involved an arduous seven-day trek through the Darién Gap, 10,000 square miles of rainforest between Colombia and Panama, where many migrants have been robbed or attacked.
Louis carried his two-year-old on his front, a large backpack full of cereal, milk and ramen on his back and camping gear on his head. After a long day walking, he’d make a big pot of soup to share, not just for Haitians, but also for migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cuba, India and Venezuela who were making the same trip.
During the journey, the sand that seeped into Louis’s shoes when treading through water chafed against his bare feet. His Achilles tendon hurt so much that he wasn’t sure he could continue, until a Russian migrant offered him an opiate to numb the pain. He saw an older woman die after having a heart attack while climbing a mountain; a young man was killed by robbers. The deaths reminded Louis of a time in Haiti when he saw horror so often.
The family ran out of money along the way, so they stayed in Honduras while the rest of the group pushed on, waiting for Sabrina’s cousin in Illinois to wire some cash. When they eventually reached Mexico, they rented a house for a month and applied for a Mexican visa, but were told it would take over four months to process. The family couldn’t afford to stay that long.
Another of Sabrina’s cousins joined them in Mexico, also coming from Chile with his wife and child, and together the six of them left for the border. After a week travelling by bus, they reached the Del Rio Bridge, which connects Mexico to Texas. Migrants hoping to live in America had set up a makeshift camp there, on the American side. On the first evening, around 200 people were staying beneath the bridge. The families spread out their blankets on the grass and went to sleep.
They awoke to a very different scene: thousands of migrants were arriving at once. “There were too many people, there were helicopters filming us,” Louis said. “I knew then it would be difficult to succeed.” At the camp’s peak in September, about 14,000 migrants were staying there. The families spent four days living under the bridge. Louis got a fever, which he blamed on the thick dust that blew up every time the wind whipped through. One day Louis waded across the Rio Grande river to the Mexican side to buy food (“in the camp, you could only get bread”).
They had bet everything on a better life and they had lost
Every morning at 8am, American border agents would arrive and call out some numbers. On their fifth day at the camp Sabrina’s cousin was called: he and his family were put on a bus with other migrants and told they were going to a Haitian-American pastor’s house in Texas. Louis’s family were called later that day. But instead of being sent to a pastor’s house, they were carted off to a detention centre in Texas and put in a cell with three other families.
Louis, Sabrina and his daughter huddled together beneath a sheet of plastic for warmth. For four days they didn’t bathe or brush their teeth, and hardly ate. “Two spoonfuls of American food and finished,” said Louis. He still doesn’t know why they were taken to the detention centre and not the pastor’s house. “For us, it was a matter of luck.”
The family was put on a bus to San Antonio with other Haitians. Border-patrol agents told them that once they arrived, they would be flown to Las Vegas. The migrants around Louis were elated: they’d been offered covid tests and thought this meant they’d soon be reunited with family members in America. But Louis’s heart was pounding. He didn’t know of any other migrants who had been taken to Vegas, and feared they were being deported.
Louis wanted to settle near Chicago, home to his favourite basketball team (he was wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey when we met). He had dreamt of owning a car, maybe even a home, and sending drums full of rice, oil and beans to his family in Haiti. Now he looked out of the window at the houses in Texas and thought to himself, “My God, look at the country I can’t come into.” There were Americans on their porches, Americans on motorbikes on the open highway with wide skies before them. The American Dream was passing him by. Sabrina sat with their daughter on her lap, inconsolable. They had bet everything on a better life and lost.
The agents had lied. They were flown straight to Haiti. Before the plane took off, passengers’ hands and feet were tied. “I’m not a thief, I’m not a murderer, I haven’t committed a crime,” Louis said. “I was looking for refuge in a country and you denied it to me.” Deportees cried and yelled, begging for a phone call with a family member or a lawyer, which Louis says they were denied. Guards yelled at him for asking questions. “They treated us like animals,” he said, “not giving us the right to make our case.”
Since September more than 8,000 Haitians have been deported from America. The situation on the ground in Haiti is so dangerous that the American government has advised all its own citizens to leave the country. Yet on September 19th, the day before his 27th birthday, Louis, his family and 327 other Haitians were put on a deportation flight back to Haiti. “From the moment I got on that plane I had to accept it [my return], give myself strength. But my heart ached.” When the plane landed in Haiti, some deportees tried to force their way back onto the aeroplane.
Louis now lives with his sister in Port-au-Prince and sleeps in his nephew’s room. Sabrina recently left him, taking their daughter with her. She kept talking about the 14 others they’d started their journey with, all of whom made it to America. Helped by the pastor, Sabrina’s cousin and his family went to Florida, where they have relatives (a lawyer is helping him fight to stay). Where might Louis’s family be now if they hadn’t run out of money along the way? “By the time we got to the border, immigration was tired of Haitians,” says Louis.
There were Americans on their porches, Americans on their motorbikes with wide skies before them. The American Dream was passing him by
His mother thinks he is still in Mexico. With her high blood pressure and diabetes, he’s afraid that the news could kill her. She couldn’t sleep the night she heard about deportation flights on the radio: was her son on one of them?
When he was living in Chile, Louis would wake up each morning to the sound of people frying sopapillas, a pastry, in sizzling oil. In Haiti it’s gunfire and the smell of burning tyres. The fear of being kidnapped keeps Louis a prisoner in his sister’s home. He misses exercising and walking freely in the streets. Louis wasn’t against returning home to Haiti one day, when he had money – but not like this, without a dollar.
When I asked Louis if he’d try getting to America again, he shook his head. His brother has helped him buy a ticket back to Chile (he still has a visa): after he returns to work, he’ll decide what’s next. Sabrina’s cousin in Illinois was incredulous when Louis phoned to tell him they weren’t coming. “I just put up the bed where you’re going to sleep! I’m sitting in front of it and looking at your sneakers!”
He had bought Louis new trainers after hearing that he’d ruined his Adidas Sambas while walking through the Darién Gap. He went on to describe the life Louis could have had in Illinois. “There’s a kindergarten where you can enroll your daughter, a few Haitian families. There’s so much work to go around…”
*Names have been changed
Jessica Obert is a writer and photographer based in Haiti
PORTRAITS: RICHARD PIERRIN
ADDITIONAL IMAGES: GETTY, REUTERS, AP
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Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2021. All rights reserved.

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