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As migration challenges continue, Haitians in Tijuana find support at community forum – The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Hundreds of Haitians in Tijuana received warm meals of chicken, rice and beans as well as legal orientations on Wednesday as part of a Christmas-themed community town hall.
The forum, hosted by Haitian Bridge Alliance — a San Diego-based advocacy and aid nonprofit that focuses on supporting Black migrants, particularly Haitians — was an opportunity for advocates to answer questions and to gauge the needs of newcomers. Haitian migrants continue to arrive in the border city with hopes of reaching the United States, a migration trend that has gone on for years and came into public focus in 2021.
Guerline Jozef, the organization’s executive director, said that sharing a dinner with Haitian asylum seekers in Tijuana was a necessary part of her Christmas celebration.
“As a culture and as a people we have forgotten who Christ is,” Jozef said. “As we stand here in Tijuana looking at migrants in search of protection, I cannot help but go back to the basic reality that Christmas is acknowledging that Christ is a refugee.”
Border policies have long restricted asylum seekers’ access to U.S. soil, and under the pandemic those restrictions became even more limiting. That has caused thousands to be stranded in Mexico’s northern border cities, filling shelters and forcing many to live on the street. A similar situation is playing out at Mexico’s southern border, where, because of U.S. pressure, Mexico has held asylum seekers, including tens of thousands of Haitians, in Tapachula.
Most Haitians left their country years ago due to a combination of natural disasters, gang violence, political corruption and poverty. Those now on the move are largely coming from either Chile or Brazil, where they had attempted to make new lives. Many have told the Union-Tribune about racist attacks and discrimination that they faced, particularly in Chile, which contributed to their decisions to leave.
But in 2021, conditions back in their home country only appeared to worsen as more natural disasters shook the nation. The president of Haiti was assassinated, and American missionaries were kidnapped there.
Rather than return home to Haiti, many in Brazil and Chile decided to head to the United States.
The United States extended protections for Haitians already on U.S. soil earlier this year because of conditions in their home country. But gaining access to the U.S. has been difficult for those still south of the border, and many who have tried to cross ended up back in Haiti.
Using a policy known as Title 42, U.S. border officials conducted nearly 10,300 expulsions of Haitians since President Joe Biden took office through the end of November, according to court documents filed this week in a case over the administration’s attempted end of the “Remain in Mexico” program. That’s more than one-fifth of the apprehensions of Haitians by Border Patrol agents during that time. And the proportion is growing — in the past three months, more than a third of the Haitians apprehended were expelled.
More than 500 others were sent back to Haiti under more traditional deportations this year.
“Is there a place in the world for Haitian people?” one Haitian asylum seeker still stuck in Tapachula said in English to the Union-Tribune this week. “We cannot live in — not even in our country. So we’re trying to survive to go somewhere else, and then they refuse us. What is the problem?”
Advocates with Haitian Bridge Alliance have worked to support those stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as in Tapachula, with donated clothing, hair care products, masks — and information.
San Diegans Yvonne Griffin and Christina Griffin-Jones, a mother and daughter pair who volunteer with the organization, said that they see their work supporting Haitians in Tijuana as an extension of the movement for Black lives.
It’s an act of solidarity, not charity, Griffin-Jones said.
“It’s about doing for my family members, people who are part of the same history that I am a part of,” Griffin-Jones said, “and the reasons they have to migrate are because of actions of the country I call home.”
“There’s enough space in America for everybody,” her mother Griffin added.
As part of its work supporting Black migrants, Haitian Bridge Alliance filed a lawsuit this week on behalf of Haitian asylum seekers who were held by U.S. Border Patrol under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, back in September, alleging abuse and racial discrimination on the part of U.S. officials. It says that the federal government under Biden implemented a specific “Haitian deterrence policy” to keep Haitian migrants out of the United States.
“Haitians have been one of the most common targets of the United States’ racist, exclusionary policies,” the court document says.
The plaintiffs include a man who was pictured in a highly publicized photo that shows being him chased down by Border Patrol agents on horseback.
The man, identified in the lawsuit as Mirard Joseph, said that the encounter with the Border Patrol agent “was the most humiliating experience of my life.”
“The second most humiliating moment was when they handcuffed and chained me to go back to Haiti,” he added in the court document.
When asked about the lawsuit, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said that it has a policy not to comment on pending litigation.
“As Secretary (Alejandro) Mayorkas has said, DHS does not tolerate mistreatment or abuse of migrants in our custody,” the spokesperson added. “DHS remains committed to a thorough, independent, and objective investigation.”
The DHS Office of the Inspector General announced in November that it had declined to investigate the incident and was passing that case to Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
At Wednesday’s event in Tijuana, Nicole Phillips, an attorney with Haitian Bridge Alliance, warned the crowd of injustices in the U.S. immigration system.
Phillips emphasized the likelihood that people who try to cross will be expelled to Haiti and cautioned about the difficulties they would face in proving asylum claims if they were actually allowed access to that process.
Though most of what she shared with the crowd in a small park near the border was not exactly good news, several people expressed to the Union-Tribune gratitude at having access to any information at all.
One couple who had been in Tijuana for four months said the town hall was the first time they’d heard U.S. border policies and processes explained in Haitian Creole.
“I feel a little bit better because I know something,” one woman said in the Spanish she’d learned during her time in Chile.
The Haitian community forum was paired with a Christmas event hosted by the city of Tijuana and various local organizations providing tacos, clothing, shoes and blankets to migrants and anyone living on the street. That event featured Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus as well as The Grinch in costume.
While city workers passed out gifts from the backs of trucks on one side of the park, most Haitian adults stayed gathered around Phillips, listening intently, some even recording the entire talk on their phones.
“Everyone here is afraid to return to Haiti, right?” Phillips asked the crowd.
“Yes!” the crowd responded.
That’s not enough, she told them, to be able to stay in the United States. Phillips, who learned Haitian Creole in the years she spent working in the Caribbean nation as a human rights lawyer, gave culturally specific examples about what kinds of cases qualify for asylum, such as opposition politicians targeted by those in power or individuals threatened by criminal organizations tied to political groups.
One woman in the crowd learned that she might have a chance. After hiding her sexual orientation for years, she had identified herself publicly as a lesbian and worked with organizations to push for rights for Haiti’s LGBTQ+ community. Most of her family abandoned her, and her child’s father took her daughter away. She was targeted, she said, and a fellow organizer was killed. She fled the country earlier this year.
But before she can worry about how to begin the asylum process, she has a more pressing need. She’s been sleeping on the street for two weeks since she got to Tijuana.
Her father, the only person in her immediate family who supported her, had died in the Darién Gap — a notorious jungle that migrants must cross to reach Panama from Colombia — while the two made their way north from where he was living in Brazil. She has one uncle in the United States who she believes would accept her if she could get inside the country.
“I feel alone,” she said through a friend who translated from Creole to Spanish. Her voice cracked as she spoke.
But once she was standing at the table with Haitian Bridge Alliance volunteers to learn more about options available to her, her smile beamed across the park.
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