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By Gessika Thomas, Ivan Alvarado and Daina Beth Solomon
PORT-AU-PRINCE/PEUMO, Chile – Like thousands of other Haitian migrants, Eric Jean Louis gave up his house and job in Chile earlier this year to trek thousands of miles to the United States after hearing he could receive asylum under President Joe Biden’s new administration.
His hopes were dashed when U.S. officials at Del Rio, Texas in September returned him to Haiti – a place he left 14 years ago and said had since become unrecognizable, ripped apart by gang violence.
After six weeks that felt like “going back to hell,” the 47-year-old scraped together money from friends for plane tickets to Chile, ready to give the country another try – even if it meant starting again in a place where Jean Louis said life was not easy and Haitians sometimes faced racism.
But it still beat home.
“Since I’ve been here, I hardly sleep at night. I’m afraid,” Jean Louis said in Port-au-Prince, shortly before he left for Chile with his wife and four relatives in November.
Jean Louis’ family and others with money and the right visas are part of a new migration triangle, returning to places in the Southern Cone they had just left, and abandoning, for now, their American Dream.
As rumors grew among Haitian communities in Chile and Brazil that Haitians were being allowed to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to claim asylum, an encampment under the Del Rio International Bridge swelled to 14,000 people in September wanting to enter the United States. It became a symbol of Biden’s struggle to curb record numbers of migrants at the border.
Close to 8,000 Haitians were eventually expelled from Del Rio to Haiti, U.S. officials say. Nearly all had previously lived in Chile or Brazil, countries that in the last decade have taken in tens of thousands of people fleeing poverty in Haiti.
Dozens of those expelled have since returned to Chile or Brazil, estimated Giuseppe Loprete, Chief of Mission for the International Organization for Migration in Haiti.
Those numbers are likely to increase – but slowly, given the challenge of arranging migration paperwork and finding thousands of dollars for entire families to travel.
“They lost the little they had, and now they’re back to square one,” Loprete said.
At Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport last month, a Reuters reporter spoke to three Del Rio deportees, some with their families, who were flying to Chile and Brazil.
All said they hoped never to return to Haiti due to worsening violence and political turmoil.
Since President Jovenel Moise’s assassination in July, Haiti’s gangs have extended their influence, fueling kidnappings that target locals as well as foreigners, including American and Canadian missionaries in October.
Migrant advocacy groups and a Biden appointee blasted the U.S. decision to return people to Haiti during such chaos.
Jean Louis’ time back in Haiti coincided with a month-long gang blockade of fuel supplies that created crippling gasoline shortages and prevented him from seeing relatives. Fear of gangs often left him too scared to even leave his house, he said.
Juvenson Sudney, 25, left Haiti in 2015 for Brazil. In July this year, hoping to escape economic malaise in South America and join an uncle in Florida, he set off on the 5,200 mile (8,400 km) journey to the United States.
He got as far as Del Rio – and then was put on a plane to Haiti.
The upheaval in Haiti pushed him to return to Brazil, where he is a naturalized citizen.
“There’s nothing here for me,” he said at the Port-au-Prince airport.
Other Haitians have found going back to South America tricky. Four people expelled from Del Rio told Reuters they were struggling to pay for plane tickets and get visas in order.
Some left Chile while awaiting visa renewals, and must now contend with tougher visa rules from 2018. Chile’s migration office did not respond to a request for comment.
Brazil’s foreign ministry said it could “facilitate” the return to Brazil of families where the children were born in Brazil, and that foreigners with Brazilian spouses can obtain entry visas. Others would be handled case by case, the ministry said.
Joao Chaves, a Brazilian federal public defender who works with migrants, said he was helping two families with Brazilian-born children – who were also sent to Haiti from Del Rio – request plane tickets from Brazil’s government for the return trip.
Migrant advocates say visa applications for Haitians in Chile and Brazil are backed up, partly because of the pandemic.
Jean Louis, who has a permanent residency visa in Chile, said he spent $8,000 traversing Central America and Mexico to reach Del Rio, draining his savings. Friends helped him and his wife buy tickets to Chile for about $710 each.
Once he and his family landed in Santiago, they were held at the airport six hours for COVID-19 tests and paperwork.
“I prayed to God they would let us enter Chile, it was my only hope,” he said.
Back in his former town of Peumo, in Chile’s wine-growing region a couple of hours drive south of Santiago, he told friends how Haiti had changed.
His boss welcomed him back to his janitor position, but Jean Louis declined, opting for a factory job. He also turned down offers from friends to return belongings he had given away.
“I want to start over again,” he said.
Though relieved to be back in Chile, remorse gnaws at him.
“Everyone knows I took this trip of misfortune,” he said. “And that I failed.”
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