While images of Haitians in a Del Rio encampment riveted the world about this time last year, a Haitian man living in Brazil finalized plans to make the same 5,000-mile journey to the U.S. southern border.
“I decided I should still come anyway and not let the chance to go to the U.S pass,” Williams, a Gonaïves native, said. “I did it because I didn’t realize what I was getting into, what was going to happen, but never would do it again,”
Now, Wiliams, who requested to be identified by his last name only out of fear of deportation, is in the Boston area after completing the yearlong voyage. His story — starting with first leaving Haiti in 2013 and living in three different other countries before landing in the U.S. — in many ways illustrates the same factors that brought 15,000 Haitians to Texas in 2021 and that continue to draw more of them to the US. Namely, Haiti’s failures pushing him out, the need to earn a living, and other countries not offering much better.
“Thankfully by the grace of God I made it here because the United States was the destination,” Williams said.
Pushed out by illness, journeying with God
Williams, 26, left home in 2013 when he fell ill. With no treatment available to him in Haiti for the undiagnosed illness, his father suggested he go to the Dominican Republic for healthcare.
“When I was leaving [my parents] I was praying to God to be able to come back and see them to be able to spend some time together,” Williams said.
Williams ended up staying in the Dominican Republic for four years, working various jobs to earn a living. In 2017 he left for Chile when the DR began cracking down on Haitians who had arrived without permission.
“Every day looking at how things were unfolding in Haiti, the situation didn’t look good at all and in the Dominican Republic there wasn’t a real life for Haitians so that’s when I made up my mind that I had to leave both of these countries,” Williams said.
He saved $3,700 to leave the Dominican Republic for Chile. Once he got to Chile he couldn’t get ahold of the right documents to work so he left for Brazil.
In Brazil, he worked at a recycling plant and ceramics studio making about $290 a month. He wasn’t only managing his own bills, but also sending money home to help his dad raise his older sister’s four children after she died.
“I also have another sister with kids, even when I couldn’t take care of all of them, at least I was able to send a little something to help out when they didn’t have anything,” Williams said.
Williams was not able to sustain a living in Brazil with the money he made so he decided to leave.
That decision would take him through 12 countries, from Bolivia to Ecuador to Columbia and Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.
Along the way Williams felt hunger and exhaustion all around him. He saw people unable to walk and dying. Half way through, Williams thought about turning back, but when he looked at how far he had come compared to how far he’d have to go he figured he had a better chance of continuing on.
“If I was able to find somebody to take me out of where I was and back to where I was I would have said yes because I got to a point I felt very discouraged,”
A woman he became friends with along the trip became too tired to keep going and fell ill. Their small group stayed with the woman until she passed, he said. But the experience left him feeling extremely saddened and he wanted to give up.
“We couldn’t save her, we didn’t have phones that worked to call for help,” Williams said. “That made me very sad and I didn’t have strength left to walk. But other people along the way resigned and said we are already on the road together let’s keep going and figure out how to save ourselves,”
He went on to Mexico and found a place to stay in a migrants’ camp called Senda De Vida and waited his turn behind women and families to cross. Because he was single with no children, his turn took eight months to come.
At the camp, run by a priest in Reynosa, Williams was helped with filling out humanitarian parole paperwork. Once he crossed into Texas, he called his cousin in Massachusetts. Within hours, the cousin booked him a hotel room for two nights and a plane ticket to Boston.
One month after arriving in Boston, Williams feels lucky to have been taken in by a local pastor since his cousin couldn’t accommodate him. He sleeps on a mattress in the minister’s office, but what keeps him awake is the unknown once his parole expires after a year.
“Everything is possible,” Williams said. “I just need the work papers to start working but everything is possible,”
Same factors, different faces
As Williams contemplates his new life in the U.S., fears of deportation dog him, paperwork is backlogged and organizations carry the burden where federal and state dollars don’t suffice – all against the backdrop of Haiti in a humanitarian catastrophe.
“What happened in Del Rio is something that we have been telling people since 2015,” Guerline Jozef, Executive Director of The Haitian Bridge Alliance said. “Nobody was listening. It was really eye opening for the world outside of people working with Black migrants.”
Haitian Bridge Alliance was the first Haitian-led ground on the ground along the U.S. Mexico border providing assistance with food, medical assistance and bail support.
“I saw the pain in their eyes, and I felt every traumatic experience to the point it was no longer me looking at 14,000 Haitians and other Black people under the bridge, It was me looking at myself – It could have been me,” Jozef said. “I use that as fuel so even when I’m tired, even when I’m exhausted, I have to keep going,”
Tessa Petit, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, is still processing some of the stories she heard at the border.
“Some of them traveled three months by foot, they had seen so much death.” Petit said. “They would walk and see dead bodies of a mom holding a baby and not knowing what killed them, if it’s hunger. One person said they witnessed a woman sliding off a cliff with her baby to her death.”
“Those are the stories that stick with me because if you’re going to put yourself through this it is because risking that is better than the uncertainty of death that you’re looking at,” Petit added.
Jozef said there are still about 40,000 Black asylum seekers in Mexico and 90% of them are Haitian.
There are multiple causes to recent migration at the border. After the 2010 earthquake, Haitians went to Brazil to work manual labor at the World Cup. After Brazil’s economy collapsed, Jozef saw groups of Haitians at the border. Just a few years later Jozef saw another group arrive from Chile who fled after experiencing racism and low job opportunities.
Haitian Bridge Alliance represented a mother who was denied medical assistance while in labor for being Haitian.
“On the way home in the freezing cold, snowing she ended up giving birth in the middle of the street and the father had to untie his shoe to use the shoelaces to tie the umbilical cord,” Jozef said.
The family left Haiti and spent a year in U.S. detention centers before The Haitian Bridge alliance was able to assist them to be released.
“By the time we were able to get in touch with them they had already had their credible fear interview without proper translation, without proper interpretation, without legal support, without community support,” Jozef said. “And the judge found them not credible for protection and put them on deportation to Haiti.”
A domino effect
The U.S. continues to use Title 42, a dormant healthcare policy the Trump administration activated during the pandemic to bar newcomers from the country. Still in effect under Biden, Petit has seen the policy single out Haitians, while exempting other groups such as Cubans, Nicaraguans and Ukrainians.
“We are in a system that segregates us,” Petit said.
Under the Biden administration, deportation flights to Haiti have risen. According to Amnesty International’s report, between September 2021 and May 2022, the U.S. expelled more than 25,000 Haitians under the use of Title 42. Between September 2021 and May 2022 alone, at least 227 flights from the U.S. landed in Haiti, compared to a total of 37 flights in all of 2020, and 37 in the first eight months of 2021 according to Witness at the Border, an organization that tracks deportation flights.
“Haiti is the only country that the United States has deported people, including pregnant women and children, on Saturdays and Sundays,” Jozef said.
To stop the flights, immigration leaders such as Petit and Jozef have the same asks to the White House they did a year ago: Extend TPS, give asylum to Haitians, stop Title 42 and provide pathway to permanent residency for undocumented people.
Pastor Dieufort “Kiki” Fleurissant also adds that the US can’t close its eyes to the current state of Haiti either.
“As long as Haiti remains the same as it is now, we will continue to have people coming up here,” he said. “It’s a domino effect. You cannot separate the two.”
While the policy debates rage, Williams is grateful to have landed in Boston. His main wish is to work, establish a life here and one day return home to see his parents.
“I am wishing For the country to work, as in function well, for things to be good so I can go home to Haiti,” Williams said. “At some point I’d like to see my country, I want my country to be good,”