Q&A: Haitian Odyssey project explores intersections of immigration crisis and 'life-altering' policy – Houston Chronicle

A child looks back on the arms of his mother as she takes a look at supplies brought to the Terraza Fandango migrant shelter where they are living at, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Ciudad Acuña.
A man gives kisses to a baby at the Terraza Fandango migrant shelter, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Ciudad Acuña.
Migrants cross the Río Muerto as they and other migrants enter the Darién Gap jungle on their way north led by guides, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Acandí.
Migrants cross the Río Muerto as they and other migrants enter the Darién Gap jungle on their way north led by guides, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Acandí.
Victor Johnson stands on a trailer filled with clothing and shoes giving instructions about how the items will be distributed at a migrant shelter, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Ciudad Acuña. The shelter is called Terraza Fandango and it was located about an mile from the Del Rio International Bridge.
Bruna Estime, 9, and her sister Misskenda Estime, 6, color a book at the Terraza Fandango shelter where they have been taking shelter for several months with their mother and aunt, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Ciudad Acuña. The girls are Haitian but grew up mostly in Brazil before migrating north.
Venezuelan migrants, Jesus Fernandez, 24, and his cousin Carlos Fernandez, right, gather with other Venezuelan migrants for dinner at the Las Tecas camp, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Acandí. Several in the group knew each other because they were neighbors back in their native Venezuela. They are fleeting the violence, poverty and political instability hitting Venezuela. The group who are in their 20s will spend the night at the camp before crossing the Darién Gap as they try to reach the United States where they plan to ask for asylum.
Migrants cross the Río Muerto as they and other migrants enter the Darién Gap jungle on their way north guided by guides, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Acandí.
This was originally featured in the Houston Chronicle’s HouWeAre newsletter about race, culture and identity. You can sign up here.
Every now and then, I try to share with readers the perspectives of our reporters at the Houston Chronicle who are doing the work to expose injustice and inequities, to educate on policy and politics, and to weave the intricate and rich stories that make Houston Houston — all of which hold everyone of us accountable as global citizens and neighbors.
Today, Elizabeth Trovall, our immigration reporter, talks about her breathtaking project, Haitian Odyssey, that follows the 10,000-mile Haitian migration to the U.S., and walks the reader through the trials and traumas that have led to it and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. 
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
A: I was born in Laredo, and grew up in Pflugerville (Austin suburbs). After graduating from the University of Missouri, I moved to Santiago, Chile, where I lived for four years. There, I reported on South American business news, but also had opportunities to cover political and cultural stories (like this one about a Chilean rock band that gave voice to the anti-dictatorship protest movement). When I returned to the U.S. in 2017, I started covering immigration in Marfa and continued to cover the beat in Houston, at Houston’s NPR station (Houston Public Media) and now for the Houston Chronicle. 
Q: Part of a journalist’s job is to break down complex issues into more digestible — and sometimes more sympathetic — terms for the reader. What drew you to immigration and policy?
A: Covering immigration is a way to better understand the world beyond U.S. borders and it’s a constant testament to human resilience. Understanding the mind-numbing, wonky maze of immigration policy is important because the stakes are so high. When the government deports someone, that person is banished from the country and separated — possibly forever — from their family. If a judge grants someone asylum, that person has been freed from the fear of persecution. The consequences of immigration policy are life-altering, which is why I try to understand it.
Q: Your Haitian Odyssey series is breathtaking in scope and depth; it not only shows the humanity in this crisis, but also the domino effects of economic and natural disasters. You covered the crisis in Del Rio, when it was used both as political fodder and as a backdrop for our broken immigration system — but what was different was the sea of Black faces who were not migrants from Central America. Do you feel like the situation was treated differently because of that? And if so, how?
A: That these were Black, Haitian families in Del Rio undoubtedly played a role in the government response, the media coverage and the public’s reaction. What I saw in Del Rio was a militarized, enforcement-heavy response to a humanitarian crisis and much of the reporting emphasized the spectacle of it all.
I’d like to share a quote from Guerline Jozef, who was in Del Rio in mid-September and runs the Haitian Bridge Alliance: 
“Del Rio was eye opening, a window for the world to see the reality of how the United States not only treats asylum seekers, but specifically Black bodies. Because the response that the Haitian asylum seekers received would have been different, if they were of a different shade. It’s the fear of Black people that created the response that we saw. When you have men carrying children and food and you have the United States responding by unleashing armed forces … as if it was a war zone.”  
While covering the situation in Del Rio, I thought about how it might be different if these were light-skinned migrants. Though there are differences in the political context, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. treating Ukranians, for example, the same way. It’s also worth mentioning that 11 Haitian migrants are suing the Biden administration over inhumane and discriminatory treatment at the border in Del Rio.
To be clear, there’s no ideal way of fleeing home, walking through cartel-controlled territory and crossing the Rio Grande with a child on your shoulders. This was hardly the first time we’ve seen migrants in poor conditions at the border, and it won’t be the last. And Central Americans continue to not be allowed to seek asylum in the United States under Title 42, even though many Haitians were granted entrance into the country. There’s a lot of nuance to unpack when we start to compare the treatment of different nationalities. 
Q: What did you learn following and retelling the story of Haitian migration?
This project was (regrettably) the first time I had paid close attention to Haitian-American relations. Many readers may know this, but I didn’t: the U.S. has repeatedly played a role in Haiti’s political and economic instability, going all the way back to Haiti’s revolution when Black Haitians fought off French colonizers, simultaneously winning independence and abolishing slavery. This was in the early 19th century and the U.S. enacted a crippling embargo towards Haiti, cutting it off from what could have been a powerful economic ally – why? The United States, which would take decades longer to end slavery, didn’t want to support a liberated, Black nation. It didn’t formally recognize Haiti until 1862. This is just one example – there are plenty – and it’s a good reminder to read more history books.  
Q: I do think as a reporter that there is always a moment or an event or a person who touches you in an impactful and often unexpected way that can make you think differently about life, identity or your place and role in storytelling. Who or what was that for you in this series coverage?
A: Like so many of the Haitians I interviewed for this story, I also lived in Chile for several years as a foreigner. Living there was a daily reminder of my privilege as a white, educated U.S. citizen. 
When I started reporting this story, and sat down with Exode, Domingue, Jean, Quettlie and others, their stories caused me to look back on my own memories and reconsider how the larger societal forces in Chile that allowed me to have this enriching, cultural experience, were in many ways the same forces that created hostile conditions for Haitians who were there for a better life. 
At the same time, in these conversations we often found moments to bond over the cold Chilean winters, unique slang words or how much we loved cazuela. Chile was our common ground. And even after unloading difficult accounts of their lives there, I was surprised by how many Haitians who had left on this journey still referred to Chile as a beautiful country. 
Q: Anything else you want to share?
A: Thank you to the people who trusted me with their stories. 
Do you have a story to share or know of one that needs to be told? Share it with us here.
We want to foster conversation and highlight the intersection of race, identity and culture in one of America’s most diverse cities. Sign up for the HouWeAre newsletter here.
Jaundréa Clay is a native of West Texas (great for star-gazing) who has lived in Dallas (go SMU!), Waco and San Antonio and is a newcomer to Houston — but is never content in her corner of the earth. For her, traveling is a philosphy, not just a vacation filling the space between ho-hum and humdrum. A new experience can be found in the backyard, backwoods, or “over there.” She’s traveled extensively, both in the States and abroad, with many more places on the bucket list, and enjoys getaways not so much to see new things, but to plug into regional and world views to learn her hosts’ cultural “-isms.” Her experiences may also lend themselves to commentary on current events, arts, music, language, sociology, socioeconomic factors and eccentricities that make each little corner of the earth unique in its own right.
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