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Haitian refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border versus those fleeing by sea


As the most recent influx of Haitian asylum seekers to the U.S. arrived at the US-Mexico border, a common initial misconception was that they were coming directly from Haiti. However, the vast majority had made the months-long journey from countries in South America, mainly Brazil and Chile. To explain some other basic differences, The Haitian Times has compiled a quick fact sheet about Haitians arriving at the US-Mexico border and those who make the journey via sea.

Haitian fleeing via seaHaitians fleeing via land 
How the migration route emergedDuring the 19th century, it was common for Haitians to be involved in trade and commerce among the Caribbean islands. Some worked on cruise ships and ports. Others island-hopped across the region for work and leisure, including to peninsulas like South Florida.For generations, people between the two continents have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, as a natural flow between the two countries for trade.
Influxes from Latin America typically occur when the U.S. faces labor shortages or when conditions in migrants’ home countries become unlivable.
How Haitians began using the route to immigrateIn the 1970s, when the brutal Duvalier dictatorship came into being, Haitians first began fleeing to escape government retaliation and death. Some chose to make the perilous 720-mile journey to South Florida via sea. 
This type of migration has continued through the years, with numbers surging after major crises throughout the last four decades.
Following the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, thousands fled the country to live and work in South America, primarily in Brazil and Chile. Brazil, in particular, sourced labor from Haiti to build its 2016 World Cup and Olympics facilities in 2016.
For many years, many Haitians in South and Central America  worked and built lives in those counties. However, they also faced constant racism.
 and eventually job opportunities in Brazil dried up, while Chile implemented increasingly strict immigration policies. Many decided to head to the U.S.
Nature of the journeyJourney takes weeks.
Refugees, overloaded on rickety fishing boats, often ran out of food and resorted to drinking sea water. Many died at sea making the journey.
Journey takes months.
The harrowing journey from South America to the U.S. takes migrants through the Darién Gap, the lawless stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama. 
Many migrants who made the trek spoke of oppressive heat and widespread rape and other abuses. Like those who succumbed to dehydration and starvation on the boats 50 years earlier, many perished en route.
Languages spokenMainly CreoleSpanish, French, Portuguese, Creole, English
Education levelLittle-to-no education, frequently experienced unemployment in HaitiMix of professionals with college degrees and others without higher education
Cost of journeyBuilding the boats for the journey took three months and cost on  average between $6,500 and $8,000. The boats could fit roughly 145 people.Journey can span months and the cost to cross the border ranges from $6,000-$10,000.
What has changed: Haiti Haiti has seen 11 presidents ascend to power since Duvalier fled in 1986. The country is no longer under a dictatorship.Those who are forced to return to Haiti will have to contend with living in a country ravaged by political instability, gang violence, lack of economic opportunity and the effects of yet another devastating earthquake.
What has changed: The U.S.At the time, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was the agency in charge of handling immigration. They were tasked with strengthening border controls and also launched controversial deportation programs, beginning in the 1950s. Sept. 11, 2011, drastically changed the structure of the U.S. government and the way it viewed immigration and homeland security. The INS ceased to exist in 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created under the Bush administration. Three new agencies assumed INS responsibilities: the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 
U.S. responseThe Haitians who came by boat were taken into custody by INS authorities. They were often told they were not eligible for asylum and should they choose to remain in the U.S., they would be imprisoned.Last month, images circulated of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) authorities on horseback aggressively chasing asylum seekers who attempted to cross the border from Mexico. Although Vice President Kamala Harris voiced her discontent with the treatment of the asylum seekers and the Department of Homeland Security began an investigation into CBP’s practices, the Biden administration began sending planes filled with asylum seekers back to Haiti in what was termed a “deportation blitz.” With the Democrats’ proposed immigration bill having been rejected by the Senate earlier this week, the fate of many asylum seekers, just like those decades ago, remains in limbo.

Sources: Bloomberg, Daily Mail, Duke Law School, Migration Policy Institute, National Public Radio, ReliefWeb, Society for Applied Anthropology, Spectrum News 13, The Haitian Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, USCIS 

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Larisa is a reporter for The Haitian Times covering politics, elections and education primarily. A graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, she has interned at CNBC and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. She is also a recipient of the 2021 DBEI Fellowship by Investigative Reporters & Editors. Larisa can be reached by email at larisa@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @larisakarr.

More by Larisa Karr

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