Haitians who enter the U.S. as undocumented immigrants face a future just as uncertain as those quietly allowed in or deported.
Miami, FloridaTwo days before delivering her second child, 26-year-old Rose Laure Desmornes is in a sparsely furnished house in South Florida starting to regret her decision to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Though it has been only two weeks since she; her longtime partner, JeanKely Dorjean, 35; and their daughter, Rocentia, 10, entered Arizona without documents, life is looking bleak in West Palm Beach compared to what they left behind in Tijuana, Mexico. The family had been sleeping on the floor of a bedroom with no mattress until a cousin gave up his bed. And the opportunities they envisioned, especially for Dorjean, who is skilled in plumbing and construction, feel increasingly elusive.
“Things are really difficult,” Desmornes says in a telephone interview. “It may have been better for me to stay in Tijuana.”
At 37 weeks pregnant, Desmornes is in pain. Relatives at the home where she is staying advised her to see a doctor, but she had no money nor the slightest idea of where to seek help.
“Things are complicated,” she says, adding that she doesn’t know how she will even get to the hospital once she goes into labor. “People don’t have time; everyone is working.”
For this family, the prospect of a better future in the United States slammed hard against a wall of uncertainty and disappointment. Back in Tijuana, Desmornes had friends who showered her with celebration over her son’s pending birth. Dorjean worked as a plumber, a job that provided enough money to pay for a wooden shack in a neighborhood called Libertad—Liberty. Space was tight, with barely enough room for their bed and a refrigerator, but it was home.
Originally from Haiti, the couple is among the tens of thousands of Haitians who fled to various countries across South America in search of work in the years following the devastating 2010 earthquake.
In 2017, Desmornes left their daughter with family in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, the capital, and set out for Brazil to join Dorjean, who had immigrated several years earlier. She managed to reach the small municipality of Caçador in the southern region of the country but found it difficult to earn a living. Brazil was in the midst of political strife, and a building boom, which had come with hosting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, had dried up.
So she and Dorjean took off again and settled in Mexico, where they began to build a life, obtained legal residency, and saved enough money to have their daughter join them in October after four years of separation.
Now that they are in the U.S., the family is starting over again, huddled in a barren bedroom, depending on the generosity of others for their needs.
The harsh reality for Haitians was put on international display in September when more than 14,000 migrants, most of them originally from Haiti, waded across the Rio Grande and amassed under the international bridge that connects Ciudad Acuña, Mexico and Del Rio, Texas.
As the images of migrants converged in squalid encampments on U.S. soil and allegations of mistreatment by authorities made global headlines, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas promised rapid deportations. An obsure public health statute was used to deliver on that promise, and the makeshift camp was emptied within two weeks.
More than 11,000 migrants have been returned to Haiti since mid-September, says Guerline Jozef, co-founder of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a San Diego-based immigration advocacy group. The fast-tracked deportations were carried out on more than 100 Haiti-bound planes chartered by the U.S. government using the controversial law known as Title 42 as the legal premise. Invoked by former president Donald Trump to deport and detain migrants at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become the policy of choice for the Biden administration as well to try to stem the flow of the continuing migration surge at the southern border.
Immigration advocates are still awaiting a response from the Biden administration on the number of Haitian migrants who have been allowed into the country to continue the asylum process, and the number of those being held for deportation at immigration detention centers or other facilities.
Migrants “paroled,” or allowed temporary entry into the U.S., are usually given two legal notices—one to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office and another to appear in court for an immigration hearing within 60 days. Some migrants have a chance to fight for asylum protection and apply for a work permit; others face removal proceedings back to Haiti where gang violence, gas shortages, and kidnappings have become the norm.
Randolph McGrorty, head of Catholic Legal Services in Miami, says that without reviewing the parole documents, it’s difficult to determine what benefits, such as work permits, migrants qualify for. Individuals paroled for just a few days, for example, are not eligible to apply for work authorization.
The U.S. has a long history of denying Haitian asylum claims, experts say, despite chronically unstable conditions in the migrants’ homeland. As far back as the 1970s, when the first wave of migrants from the Caribbean nation began washing up in rickety boats along Florida’s shores, fleeing Haitians have been cast as trying to escape poverty and economic hardship rather than political violence or human rights violations. This has led to the detention of tens of thousands of Haitians over the years and allegations of inhumane and unequal treatment.
In early December, President Joe Biden reinstated the controversial policy introduced by Trump and known as “Remain in Mexico.” Formally called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), the program requires asylum seekers who cross the southern border to remain in Mexico to await their immigration court hearings. Haitian advocates and immigration attorneys say they are still unclear about how the program will work, but they remain concerned that the Creole-speaking Haitians will be denied due process as a result of language barriers and will be exposed to abuse in Mexico, where many are living in tents, on the streets, or in other inhumane conditions while they wait.
While Desmornes and Dorjean were not among the migrants who converged in Del Rio, they are an example of the countless border crossers who leave behind all they have to enter the U.S. as undocumented immigrants—and face a future that is just as uncertain as it is for those quietly paroled to try and obtain the legal right to stay.
It’s a reality check for a young couple who had no idea what awaited them as they stuffed what they could carry into backpacks in early November and took a four-hour, $23 per person bus ride from Tijuana to Mexicali in northern Mexico.
From there, they hopped into a cab and headed to another town, where the following morning a smuggler guided them across the U.S. border. The couple doesn’t know exactly where in Arizona they entered. While the journey wasn’t as grueling as the one from Brazil to Mexico—a 7,000-mile trek through the jungle across Central America—it was just as risky.
Upon crossing the border, they walked right toward U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, Desmornes recalls. They were immediately detained, and three days later, they were on a bus headed to the international airport in Phoenix, Arizona.
Desmornes assumes she was released due to her pregnancy. They were not given an official reason, she says, just documents with two dates, November 23 and December 21, to check in with U.S. authorities.
After getting dropped off at the Phoenix airport, the family found themselves stranded after a relative of Dorjean’s failed to follow through on an offer to purchase their flights to Florida, and then ignored their pleas for help.
The Haitian Bridge Alliance stepped in, finding them emergency shelter and someone willing to help them start new lives—but in Arizona. Determined to get to Florida, the couple shunned the offer.
For many immigrants, the U.S. inspires illusions of El Dorado, the fabled lost city of gold where dreams can come true. Haitians seeking to escape the political and economic turbulence in their homeland had long reached the U.S. aboard boats by way of the Bahamas, or directly from Haiti across the Florida Straits.
In the years after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, many who had fled to South American countries such as Brazil and Chile, walked for weeks or months to reach the U.S.’s southern border. Desmornes and Dorjean spent $3,000 on their trip. They traveled for a month, mostly on foot, before arriving in Chiapas, the Mexican state bordering Guatemala where tens of thousands of Haitians remain stranded due to tightened restrictions by Mexican authorities working with the U.S. to curb irregular migration.
When they finally settled in Tijuana, Desmornes managed to find a cleaning job at a local hospital only to be laid off a year later. By then, she was pregnant.
“In Mexico, once you aren’t working, life is very difficult. It’s impossible to find people to help you or to do anything for you,” she says.
Desmornes says she never would have crossed the U.S. border if she didn’t think she’d get a shot at staying. She did so on the advice of other migrants, who told her that her pregnancy was a guarantee against expulsion.
“That’s why I took the chance,” she says. “But if I weren’t pregnant, I wouldn’t have taken the chance because I would have been afraid that they would deport me back to Haiti.”
The possibility of being returned to Haiti or ending up homeless in the U.S. is the reason Nenel St. Julma is opting to stay—for now—in Tijuana after arriving in Mexico in January 2017.
Even though he was born in Haiti, St. Julma spent most of his life in the Dominican Republic after his family moved there when he was four. He last visited his birth country in 2010 to search for his sister who was missing and relatives feared had been killed during the quake. She survived but had been buried alive for hours under the rubble of her collapsed home.
St. Julma arrived in Mexico from Brazil, where he, too, had been part of the growing Haitian migrant community there. Soon after he got to Tijuana, friends urged him “to let’s go.” Those friends crossed, and they are now all back in Haiti after getting deported.
“I am here. I am working, even if not for a lot of money,” says St. Julma, 29, who earns about $600 a month driving a forklift at a factory. “I can pay my rent.”
St. Julma spent two and a half years living in Brazil before he flew to Guatemala, entered Mexico by crossing into the city of Tapachula, and then made his way north to Tijuana. Describing himself as a patient person, he notes that he’s able to wait it out because he has neither a wife nor a child.
“To be frank with you,” he says, “I don’t yet have a budget to enter the United States.”
The first large influx of Haitians in Tijuana was in early 2016, when hundreds began crowding the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the largest land border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego, waiting to be processed by ICE. By September 4, 2016, border officials reported the processing of more than 5,000 Haitians since October 1, 2015, when the new fiscal year began.
Most of the Haitians had fled from Brazil, where the economy was beginning to collapse and unemployment soared. Others were part of an exodus out of Haiti, prompted by violence stemming from an electoral crisis and widespread damage caused by Hurricane Matthew.
Initially, the U.S. allowed them in on humanitarian parole under a policy that had halted non-criminal deportations to Haiti after the earthquake. But after more than 5,000 were given entry, former president Barack Obama removed the six-year moratorium and reinstituted deportations. The Department of Homeland Security warned that Haitian migrants presenting themselves at the border without proper documents would be detained and deported under the expedited removal policy.
Many Haitians became stranded in Tijuana as a result of the shift in U.S. policy. Soon they began creating their own communities. They found jobs, rented apartments, and opened Haitian restaurants, barber shops, and other businesses.
In recent months, however, Tijuana has begun to undergo another transformation. Following the 2020 election of President Biden, rumors spread that the border was open to migrants. There were false reports that the administration was granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians, including those living outside of the U.S., and that it was easier to access U.S. soil from certain ports of entry in Mexico.
As a result, Tijuana’s Haitian population began to empty out. The decline became so apparent that a month ago Renel Fleurima, a Haiti-born economist who lives in Tijuana, said he couldn’t find a Haitian barber to cut his hair.
“The majority of people who arrived in 2016, I can say that 95 percent, 98 percent of that majority have left Tijuana,” says Fleurima, 36. “Whether the person has residency, or a transit pass, or is undocumented, they leave.”
Fleurima, who has two master’s degrees in economics and is currently working on a doctorate in global development studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, says he has no intention of illegally crossing.
This has given him a unique role in the community, where he also teaches French at a local high school while doing research on the socio-economic effects of Haitian remittances on families and the overall impact on Haiti’s economy.
Since his arrival in Tijuana a year ago, Fleurima has become someone whom departing migrants trust to safeguard important items such as passports, driver’s licenses, residency cards, and even house keys. Once they cross, he says, they usually wire money for the documents to be returned to them.
But even as many leave, others trickle in. A new Haitian barber has already set up shop in Tijuana, part of the group of newcomers.
Fleurima says that, for many Haitians, doing well in South America or Mexico is not enough. The perception of success, he says, is often defined by settling in the U.S., Canada, or France.
“As long as they are not in one of these countries, they lack a certain confidence,” says Fleurima, who opted to continue his studies in Mexico over France after completing his studies in Brazil in 2019. “This is why you will see Haitians who were working, who had businesses and were doing well, cross into the United States the minute they find the opportunity.”
Fleurima has observed something else, which may explain why Desmornes and Dorjean broke down their life’s possessions into what could fit into a couple of backpacks.
“When it’s time for them to leave, whatever they have, they no longer give it importance,” says Fleurima, a married father of two whose wife lives in Haiti, where she works as a police officer. “Their only objective is to leave.”
Broyenst (pronounced Bryant) came two weeks ahead of his December 6 due date. Desmornes began feeling the labor pains around 3 a.m., made a few calls, and managed to get a ride to the hospital. In less than two hours, the newborn was out of the womb—a six-pound American boy with a piercing wail.
By then, the couple had already decided to move to New Jersey.
Following the baby’s birth, the couple failed to keep a follow-up appointment to get Broyenst vaccinated because they had no means to get to the health clinic. They also missed the immigration check-in dates they had been so determined to keep.
After three weeks of living in limbo, the couple flew to New Jersey, where Dorjean said a friend promised a place to live and a job. Once they got to Newark, however, it was the ex-girlfriend of Dorjean’s younger brother who took them in, making space for them in a crowded room. The woman, who works at FedEx with Dorjean’s brother, told Desmornes she could work there too, for $14 an hour, while the brother suggested Dorjean could also make good money doing the same.
The brother proposed moving in together and said he had found a nice house he wanted them to visit. But the monthly rent was $1,850—an exorbitant amount for a couple with no jobs and no legal documents to apply for even minimum-wage work.
Over the summer, amid deepening political turmoil and a spike in COVID-19 cases in Haiti—and the subsequent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse—the Biden administration announced a new TPS designation. It allowed eligible undocumented Haitians already in the U.S. to live and work legally without fear of deportation.
Dorjean knows he arrived too late to benefit from that TPS designation, which is given to countries deemed too dangerous for nationals to return. But before the flight to New Jersey, he sits at the head of a rectangular table at the house in West Palm Beach, undaunted by the uphill battle they are sure to face. He speaks of building a life in a city where he believes work is abundantly available, and where he will earn enough money to hire an immigration lawyer “to fix” things.
“I’m a man who isn’t afraid of work,” Dorjean says. “I will work in order to take care of all I need to.”
Meanwhile Desmornes is thinking about a plan of her own should their bid to remain in the U.S. end with deportation. She disappears into the bedroom they’ll be abandoning and walks out with the couple’s Mexican residency cards in hand.
“I will go back to Mexico,” she says.
Victoria Razo is a documentary photographer based between Mexico City and Veracruz, Mexico. Her vision focuses on gender and Human Rights issues. Follow her on Instagram @_victoriarazo.
Jacqueline Charles covers the Caribbean for the Miami Herald. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas. Follow her on Twitter @Jacquiecharles.
Haitians who enter the U.S. as undocumented immigrants face a future just as uncertain as those quietly allowed in or deported.