Editor’s note: This article is the first installment of an ongoing series of profiles about Haitian asylum seekers who were intercepted in Del Rio, Texas, in September. As they make their way to family, friends and organizations across the U.S. while awaiting asylum hearings, The Haitian Times will continue to share their stories.
Fort Lauderdale, FL — By the time Jameson Mesidor found himself camped out under the Del Rio International Bridge in Texas with thousands of other asylum seekers two weeks ago, the 26-year-old Haitian had resigned himself to accept whatever would come next. After leaving Chile, where he had lived for four years, Mesidor was rejected twice at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, then bribed Nicaragua-Mexican border agents to make it through.
During the 5,000-mile trek to Del Rio, Mesidor witnessed some disturbing scenes. — At one point he drank out of a river, only to see a corpse float by minutes later. But he held on to hope throughout.
“I didn’t have a date, but I always knew that one day, I will live in the U.S. regardless,” Mesidor said, speaking from a cousin’s home in central Florida, on Sunday. “I’m someone with a lot of hope. The objective is to look for a better life to help my family.”
Mesidor is typical of the plight of thousands of Haitians who have been looking for a better life, anywhere except Haiti where the country’s rigid system provides little opportunity for but a small cadre of people.
In the last four years, they’ve crisscrossed South America with the hope of finding a better life in the United States or Canada. But despite their hardships, the story is also a tale of hope and aspiration. Those given a chance have become a functioning part of American society, making numerous contributions to the country. In the early 1990s, the U.S. granted asylum to more than 150,000 Haitians who now are making inroads across the United States.
Mesidor’s family remains in Les Cayes, Haiti, the city ravaged by the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed an estimated 2,200 people in August. Although he left the town in 2017, Mesidor had been helping them out with his earnings, sending money from Talca, Chile where he worked as a cashier.
Back in his native Les Cayes, Mesidor was a senior in high school at age 23, working for a window installation company on some weekends. The second of four children, Mesidor was all too aware of his family’s financial struggle.
“There’s no young adult in Haiti who found the opportunity to leave Haiti and chose to stay,” Mesidor said. “Things are not easy. Financially speaking, things weren’t too good for me.”
In 2017, his parents sent him to Chile, which does not require a travel visa from visitors. When he landed at the Chilean airport, he gave officials USD $1,000 to gain entry to the country.
Mesidor then lived with a friend while he finished high school, and later worked as a cashier in a store that sold plantains.
Still, he struggled to support his family.
“There’s a difference between the United States and Chile,” Mesidor said. “If you’re in the United States, you can save $500. There are some jobs in Chile where you don’t even make $500.”
Journey to Del Rio
Earlier this year, when Mesidor’s friends brought up the idea of crossing into the U.S., he was more than willing to go — even though his family in Haiti was against it, citing news reports of people dying along the way.
Despite the risks, Mesidor and four other friends set off from Talca on June 9. “I wasn’t scared,” he said.
Many of the asylum seekers are inspired to make the journey after hearing about it through social media groups, a study has found. People interested are then invited to join WhatsApp groups or similar platforms to share details and coordinate logistics, including when and how to leave their town.
The journey ended up costing Mesidor about $6,000 in all, including overpriced transportation fares, food and bribes to officials across nine borders, among other expenses. He did not say how he raised the money.
Along the way, Mesidor said he saw five dead bodies and numerous babies who fell ill.
“When you set out on this route, you already know anything can happen to you,” Mesidor said. “You can’t cry if something happens to you because you put yourself in the position where anything can happen to you.”
On several occasions, Mesidor’s journey to the U.S. was almost cut short.
Nicaraguan immigration officials sent him back to Costa Rica twice in June. He then tried his luck a third time early one morning and made it through. At the Nicaragua-Mexico border, police arrested him, but he bribed them not to call immigration.
To help him continue, Mesidor’s relatives in Florida sent funds through money transfers.
Arrival at Del Rio
But it was close, to be sure. When Mesidor arrived at the US-Mexico border on Sept. 17, immigration officials stopped him from entering. That night, about 2,000 Haitians and other asylum seekers remained there, bringing intense media attention and political scrutiny to a makeshift encampment that would expand to nearly 15,000 people.
Mesidor spent four days under the bridge in Del Rio. He slept on concrete, he said, and used his backpack as a pillow.
During his time there, images of border patrol officers on horseback wielding a lasso to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the Rio Grande river went viral. Mesidor said he didn’t see the incident; all he knows is that the Haitians generally didn’t listen to the border patrol officers.
“There’s one spot they didn’t want Haitians to go to, but they still went there to hang clothes. They told them about 100 times not to,” Mesidor said.
U.S. government officials then intensified efforts to clear the camp. Within days, thousands were sent back to Haiti, including two of the friends that Mesidor traveled to the U.S. with.
In the ensuing days, scores of Haitian-Americans organized several protests, demanding the Biden Administration stop removing the asylum seekers. But Mesidor said the government’s choice must be accepted.
“I see Haitians crying and saying that they weren’t supposed to get deported,” Mesidor said. “[But] they never called you. You chose to go to the people’s country illegally.”
Eventually, he was one of the asylum seekers in South Texas to be released. Mesidor landed in Florida on Sept. 20.
A new road ahead in America
In a turn that surprises many advocates, some Haitian-Americans are in favor of the repatriation of asylum seekers to Haiti. Those who’ve been assisting migrants are disappointed when they hear people — including asylum seekers like Mesidor — say it’s fair for the U.S. to repatriate.
Marie Pereira, an attorney based in Brooklyn, said asylum seekers with those views should just return to Haiti voluntarily.
“I don’t know if he would be singing the same song if they actually did send him back to Haiti,” said Pereira, who assists Haitian-Americans with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) applications.
The latest Haitian asylum seekers’ chances of getting asylum are low, legal experts say. To be eligible for asylum, one has to flee a location because they might be killed or seriously harmed due to religion, race, gender or political views. Most of the Haitian asylum seekers are attempting to leave South America because of poverty, Pereira said.
“That’s not an asylum claim,” Pereira said. “A lot of the Haitian migrants who made the trip from Chile or Brazil may not qualify for asylum. I think the only solution would be if Biden extended TPS to the migrants who were released from Del Rio.”
Mesidor is now looking for a job in Florida to continue supporting his family back in Haiti.
Despite looking for a job, Mesidor understands that his time in Florida might be cut short after his asylum court date — and accepts it.
“We’re not legal in this country, the government will make the decision,” Mesidor said. “Anything can happen. Whatever happens, happens. I’m trusting God. God will lead them to a decision. I’m not scared.”
Now comes a new journey for Mesidor, this time through the U.S. immigration system; his asylum hearing is set for December.