Diatha Bell, newborn son Quenndly and daughter Guelandia, 11, in their room at Banyan House, a homeless shelter in Hayward.
Forty-eight hours after Diatha Bell gave birth to a healthy baby boy at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, she was back in a Hayward homeless shelter wincing in postpartum pain and eating instant ramen soup, the only food available.
Unable to move much due to the wound from her caesarean section, Bell relied on her eldest daughter to carry out the tasks she could not. Guelandia, 11, carefully moved her baby brother from the bed to a frilly bassinet, a gift from a stranger, that was crammed in a corner of the tiny room.
Bell wished her husband and son were with them. They had almost made it to Oakland in time for the baby’s birth, but were detained in Texas after crossing the border without visas. After nine days in detention, immigration authorities put them on a plane to Haiti, a country they hadn’t been in for years.
Bell and her two daughters have been left to rebuild life from scratch all on their own.
“When I heard the news that he was deported to Haiti, I just couldn’t eat, I couldn’t speak, I was very sad and I started crying,” Bell said in Haitian Creole, translated by Laure Bottinelli of Partners in Health, a global health nonprofit.
Advocates call it a different sort of family separation, this time under President Biden.
“Family separation was one of the most hurtful and shameful atrocities put into place by the Trump administration,” said Juan Rivera, director of communications for CARECEN SF, a legal aid nonprofit for immigrants in the Bay Area. “Biden called it cruel and promised to reunify all families.”
Yet new separations appear to be happening in a less obvious — and untracked — manner, as this family’s case illustrates. Whether the family meets the criteria for asylum in the United States will be decided by a federal immigration judge, but advocates say a family should have the right to make their case together, even if they arrive separately.
Bell, 32, fled her native Haiti for Chile in 2016 after robbers targeted her small fruit business. She lived in Santiago with her husband and three children for five years. In August of last year, a pregnant Bell and her two daughters embarked on a grueling journey from South America to the U.S. border. After a week of waiting under the Del Rio bridge in Texas, with no food or water or protection from the elements, they were released by Customs and Border Patrol. Bell was given a notice to report to an immigration office within 60 days.
Her husband, Jean-Simon Colas, and 7-year-old son, Jeffly, left Chile one month behind the rest of their family, once Colas had saved enough money for bus tickets and smugglers’ fees. The delay would make all the difference.
Diatha Bell shows a photograph of her husband Jean-Simon who was deported back to Haiti after living in Chile, in Alameda, California on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.
(L-r) Guelandia, 11 and sister Mara’s, 9 feet rest on one another as they relax in bed at Banyan House, a homeless shelter in Hayward, California on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Mara, her mother Diatha and sister Guelandia escaped Haiti and lived in Chile for a few years. Life was difficult for them there. They heard that coming to the US was easier travelled for 6 weeks to get to the Texas border. It was a harrowing experience.
Jeffly was just 4 when his family moved to Chile. As a result, he calls Bell by the Spanish word mamá, and it’s this word he wails in the background as his dad tries to explain what went wrong.
“It’s been a long time since he has seen his mom,” Colas, 36, told The Chronicle in Spanish from his mother’s home in northern Haiti.
Colas and Jeffly’s journey from Chile took them two months longer than Bell’s trip as Colas had to stop along the way and find work to pay for the next leg. They arrived at the U.S. border days before Christmas and weeks before the birth of their newest family member. As he waded across Texas’ Del Rio river, Colas called Bell, jubilant that he and Jeffly had finally crossed into the United States.
“I really thought he would be joining us in California,” Bell told The Chronicle.
Then she didn’t hear from Colas for over a week. He and Jeffly had been detained.
The call Bell finally got came a few days after Christmas over a crackly line from Haiti. Colas and Jeffly had recently disembarked from their expulsion flight, one in which Jeffly sat next to his shackled father, feet and wrists tied to his waist. Colas said he was not given the chance to tell U.S. authorities that his pregnant wife was in California before he was expelled.
“Immigration didn’t ask me anything,” Colas said. “They didn’t ask me if I had any fear of going back to Haiti; they didn’t ask me anything about family.”
For its part, Customs and Border Patrol says family reunification for migrants at a port of entry is not a reason to allow someone into the United States. Furthermore, the government claims it is not deporting most of the Haitians who cross into the U.S. without visas, but simply expelling them under a Trump-era pandemic policy called Title 42, a legal distinction that means expelled immigrants can’t be prosecuted for illegal reentry if they try re-entering the country without visas.
Diatha Bell puts her hand to her head days after giving birth as she rests at Banyan House, a homeless shelter in Hayward, California on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Diatha and her daughters escaped Haiti and lived in Chile for a few years. Life was difficult for them there. They heard that coming to the US was easier travelled for 6 weeks to get to the Texas border. It was a harrowing experience.
Mara, 9 watches a program on her tablet as she rests in bed at Banyan House, a homeless shelter in Hayward, California on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Mara, her mother Diatha and sister Guelandia escaped Haiti and lived in Chile for a few years. Life was difficult for them there. They heard that coming to the US was easier travelled for 6 weeks to get to the Texas border. It was a harrowing experience.
Guelandia, 11, watches a program on her tablet as she rests in bed at Banyan House, a homeless shelter in Hayward, California on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Guelandia, her mother Diatha and sister Mara escaped Haiti and lived in Chile for a few years. Life was difficult for them there. They heard that coming to the US was easier travelled for 6 weeks to get to the Texas border. It was a harrowing experience.
Newborn baby Quenndly, 2-weeks-old, drinks from a bottle after entering his new apartment with his family in Alameda, California on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.
Colas and Jeffly are just two of the nearly 14,000 Haitians the Biden administration has expelled under this policy since September 2021.
Thousands more remain stuck in Mexico, unable to cross the border to make an asylum claim from inside the U.S.
Advocates accuse the government of parsing words and not allowing migrants the chance to stake an asylum claim before returning them to Mexico — the country they arrived from — or their home countries from which some have fled for their lives.
“The administration’s policy choices have continued to put asylum seekers in danger, punishing them to reinforce the callous message that the president, vice president, and their team have reiterated time and time again: ‘Do not come,’” Felipe Navarro Lux, the manager of regional initiatives at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, said in a statement. “This is not a humane or effective response to people fleeing for their lives.”
Colas said he is “so scared” to be back in Haiti, where a presidential assassination last summer was followed by two natural disasters, surging gang violence and last month’s attempted assassination of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.
“I’m not doing anything here (because) there is no work,” Colas added. “The situation is bad here, there is no president, and (there are) so many killings. I just stay home at my mother’s house.”
Mara, 9 carries several boxes out of her room at Banyan House, a homeless shelter in Hayward, California, as she prepares to move with her family to a permanent apartment on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.
Mara, 9 (left) gets help from volunteer Sana Salem (second from left) as she carries items with sister Guelandia, 11 (right) out of their homeless shelter in Hayward, California, as they prepare to move to a permanent apartment on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.
Back in Hayward, a depressed Bell felt nonetheless grateful to have a private room in the shelter with a bathroom. She could recover without having to share these most intimate moments with strangers. It didn’t occur to her to let the shelter manager know the toilet didn’t flush, and Guelandia dutifully filled cups of water to manually wash down waste after her mother exited the bathroom.
Guelandia has also helped in other essential ways. With her mother unable to breastfeed, Guelandia chose from one of the few tins of infant formula.
“Do I add sugar to the formula?” the girl wondered as she struggled to open the can. Bell shrugged. Guelandia squinted at the instructions on the can, written in English, a language this newly arrived family had yet to learn.
Stacked around the sleeping newborn were boxes of diapers, overflowing bags of baby clothes and baby slings, donations from those who learned of Bell’s predicament.
Few social services are available to families who arrive at the U.S. border seeking asylum. Bell was allowed into the country because she was pregnant, yet once here, Bell and her daughters were penniless and sleeping on the floor of an acquaintance’s apartment.
Bell isn’t eligible for safety net programs like subsidized housing or food stamps because she is considered undocumented until her immigration case is resolved. The current wait time between hearings is more than five years, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Mara, 9 takes a moment to herself in the midst of moving out of the homeless shelter she has been living in with her family and into permanent housing on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022 in Hayward, California.
Guelandia, 11, looks at her newborn brother Quenndly after getting settled in their new permanent apartment for the first time in Alameda, California on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022.
Bell will qualify for a work permit 180 days after she files for asylum. After weeks of searching for free legal aid, she was relieved to learn that the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office will represent her pro bono, starting with her first immigration hearing on Feb. 22.
For now, Bell’s only source of income is the $25,000 that’s been raised through a GoFundMe campaign, more than half of which came after The Chronicle published a story on the family’s plight in December. Despite her crowdfunding money, Bell struggled to find a landlord willing to rent to her.
As she was resigning herself to a long stay in the Hayward homeless shelter, Bell received news from an organization in Alameda, Shelter in Peace, which works with local landlords to provide housing for families who have no credit score or rental history. Her application to rent a furnished two-bedroom apartment costing $1,700 a month for a duration of 6 to 12 months was granted, and she moved in Feb. 1.
Two nonprofit organizations that help refugees, New Anchor and Bay Area Community Services, each agreed to pay a month’s rent. The rest will be on Bell.
The mother is also worried about how her daughters will fare in school. The Alameda Unified School District says on its website that it offers an English Learner Program, but did not respond to specific questions about how it incorporates non-English-speaking migrant students.
Diatha Bell holds her newborn son Quenndly moments after entering her new apartment for the first time in Alameda.
On a recent video call with his wife 5,000 miles away, Colas gazed at his new son, opening his eyes and uncurling a fist in the Hayward homeless shelter. “I am really sad,” Colas said, choking up. He has already begun planning how he and Jeffly will attempt to reunite with his wife and children in California, but first he must somehow save the thousands of dollars it will cost.
Deepa Fernandes is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @deepafern
Deepa Fernandes covers immigration and immigrant communities for The San Francisco Chronicle. She comes to The Chronicle from an award-winning career in broadcast journalism, reporting from around the world for NPR, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Fernandes was named Radio Reporter of the Year for 2017, 2018 and 2019 by the LA Press Club, and among the many awards she has won is an LA area Emmy while reporting with KCET in Los Angeles. She has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @deepafern
Diatha Bell, newborn son Quenndly and daughter Guelandia, 11, in their room at Banyan House, a homeless shelter in Hayward.