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When someone wins the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award, a prize that comes with a $30,000 check, the ceremony usually happens in the U.S. Senate chamber.
But when Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of San Diego-based Haitian Bridge Alliance, found out she won the annual award this year, she knew she wanted to celebrate differently. She brought her ceremony to the border, leading a group that included Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights staff and musical artist Wyclef Jean to a Tijuana migrant shelter and then to Otay Mesa Detention Center, which holds detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We wanted to bring this award to the people on both sides of the border to let them know this is for them,” Jozef said. “We hear them. We see them. We’ll continue to fight for them.”
She used the moment to push for an end to Title 42, a policy that has been in place since the start of the pandemic and allows border officials to expel migrants back to Mexico or to their home countries without offering them the opportunity to be screened for asylum eligibility, as is normally required under U.S. law and international treaties. Though President Joe Biden campaigned against some of the Trump administration’s immigration policies that resulted in asylum seekers waiting in dangerous conditions in northern Mexico cities, Biden’s team has continued and defended its use of Title 42.
She also called for an end to deportations of Haitians and deportations more generally.
“We went to the border because we heard there were Haitians,” she said in a speech outside the detention center, recalling the early days of her organization’s work in Tijuana. “We went for the Haitians, but we stayed for everyone. And we will continue to fight for everyone.”
Jozef, a longtime Orange County resident, commuted daily to San Diego for years so that Haitian Bridge Alliance could provide on-the-ground support to Haitians and other migrants on both sides of the border. She also helped create a fund to pay the bonds of Black migrants stuck in immigration detention facilities. She has become a national voice advocating for more humane border policies.
To celebrate Josef’s award, Jean performed from the back of a flatbed truck turned into a stage on the street by the detention center. He strummed a guitar as he sang, addressing Biden directly and asking him to end Title 42.
“I know my Haitians can hear me behind the fence. I know ICE is listening,” he sang. “Have a little compassion for my people behind the fence.”
The issue is personal for him, he said. He immigrated from Haiti as a child.
“I’m looking at these people on the other side of the table that I’m talking to,” he said of his experiences in Tijuana that morning. “That could’ve been me.”
He was particularly moved by his conversation with a mother who said she crossed seven countries to bring her child to the U.S. after living in Brazil. He asked her how she kept going.
“‘Every time I looked into the eyes of my child, I would rather die than not give her a better life,’” he said she responded. “That really touched my heart.”
Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said she’s known Jozef for three years since they worked together to support Haitian and Cameroonian migrants in Tijuana.
“What’s extraordinary about Guerline is she works on big issues — she works at the crucible of poverty, race and immigration,” Kennedy said. “All three of those are very challenging issues in our country, and she works where all three meet.”
She also spent time with Jozef in Del Rio when thousands of Haitians were held under a bridge in Texas and images of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing men carrying food to their families stirred a public outcry.
Kennedy remembered Josef noticing a woman in the crowd holding a baby who was not moving. Jozef approached and asked the woman about her child.
“She was born a few days ago and hasn’t eaten,” Kennedy recalled the woman responding. Kennedy thinks that the new mother was in shock.
Jozef asked to hold the baby, and then asked the mother to trust her enough to take the baby to a doctor. The child ended up being airlifted to a hospital in Houston.
“She saved that child’s life,” Kennedy said.
Jozef is now the baby’s godmother.
“That’s the meaning of her commitment,” Kennedy said. “It’s about the children in front of her, the mommy in front of her, the daddy in front of her.”
Jozef plans to use some of the prize money to send her parents on a vacation, she said.
That vacation is long overdue. According to Jozef, her parents gave up a comfortable life in Haiti to immigrate to the United States after a coup. Back in Haiti, they had a big house, and her father was mayor. In the United States, her father became a taxi driver and her mother a housekeeper. Both worked long hours to take care of the family.
But she’s not going on that vacation herself, she said. She’s going right back to work.
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