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The Haitian Women Who Live in California’s Golden Purgatory

A clash between two Americas can be seen in the story of Haitian immigrants. One is a welcoming, pluralist America; the other is the nativist country that birthed Donald Trump.

Sasha Abramsky

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Marie Darline Remy and her son in San Diego. (Photo: Sasha Abramsky)

Haitians from Brazil who trekked through jungles and waded rivers were truly the huddled masses of Emma Lazarus’ Statue of Liberty poem. Then came Donald Trump.


 

Nadia Aly, aged 26, sits at a table in San Diego’s Catholic Charities office, elegant in a silvery-gray chain-link sweater. Her daughter, just shy of 1 year old, rests in a stroller, a bow in her hair, a pacifier in her mouth.

In December 2015, Nadia left her impoverished home country of Haiti for Brazil. There was a growing Haitian community there, which over the previous years had been lured by a booming economy and the prospect of jobs — especially in construction– in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and, later, the Olympics. Many had left their children behind with relatives, hoping to be able to financially support them from afar. In Brazil, Nadia and her boyfriend, Franky Jean Simon,  whom she had met at university in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, worked, saved and planned their futures.

Little Haiti refugee settlement, Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Ted Soqui)

By the time Nadia got settled in her new home, however, the Brazilian economy had hit the skids. Most of Haitians found themselves jobless. With no income in Brazil and no prospects back in Haiti, large numbers began heading north, without papers, hoping to eventually resettle in the United States. Nadia and Franky were amongst them. It was an extraordinary odyssey. For those with money and visas, a flight from Brazil to California takes half a day. For those without, it’s a months-long journey. It involves cutting through jungles, fording rivers, traipsing from one country to the next, bribing border guards, paying smugglers. They left Brazil in small groups, friends and strangers brought together by desperation. They walked north, sometimes meeting other groups, caravanning, pooling resources (food, money, information, Spanish words picked up here and there) – modern day wagon trains of Creole-speaking migrants looking to wend their way to El Dorado. Sometimes there would be as few as five or 10 people; other times, perhaps a hundred.

Haitian men who present themselves at crossing checkpoints are promptly locked away in detention facilities. They will likely spend the next several years there unless they agree to be repatriated to Haiti.

Brazil. Peru. Ecuador. Colombia. Panama. Costa Rica. Nicaragua. Honduras. Guatemala. Mexico… and, finally, months later, the United States.

They were, truly, the tired, poor, huddled masses of Emma Lazarus’ poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Their stories were the stories of so many Americans’ immigrant ancestors– heartache, pain, poverty, exposure to violence, lack of schooling, disease, flight from dysfunction and brutal government. And they had heard rumors that once at the U.S. border, if they presented themselves to officers, they would be dealt with humanely and admitted into the country. Nobody understood quite how or why, but they knew what they had heard, or read on Facebook, and they were willing to give it a go.

“People were saying there was a way for Haitians to enter the U.S.,” Ivonnia Jean Baptiste remembers, as she fusses with her 2-month-old daughter. “I wasn’t sure about it, but I was willing to take the risk to try.”“We didn’t have any type of information,” says 39-year-old Nounoune Jules. “We were relying on our faith.”

Rosenique, San Diego. (Photo: Sasha Abramsky)

“It was really hard,” adds Gertha Bordeleus, 28, sitting in the small San Diego apartment she now shares with three other women and their children, her infant swaddled in a blanket against her shoulder. She recalls the six days that she, her husband, and their 2-year-old son walked through the jungle on the Colombia-Panama border, with only candies to eat, some Gatorade and very little water. “It was really scary. You had to walk through the forest. It was raining. We were wet; we were cold. I was too weak to carry my child.”

When Gertha’s family finally reached Tijuana in the first months of the Trump administration, however, they heard that the border was now largely closed, especially to Haitian men. For months, they lived in a refugee camp, taking on day-labor jobs, trying just to survive. Gertha became pregnant. Rumor had it that pregnant women were still, even in Trump’s America, being allowed over the border. She decided to attempt the crossing. Her husband stayed behind with their son in Tijuana.

Since Trump’s inauguration, the women and their young children are indeed still allowed in, but the door has been shut on the men. Haitian men who present themselves at crossing checkpoints and request “parole” into the country while they await their day in court are now promptly locked away in immigration detention facilities. There they will likely spend the next several years unless they forgo an immigration hearing and agree to be repatriated to Haiti; others have decided not to risk it, and are living in squalid, informal, refugee camps in Tijuana.

In December 2016, heavily pregnant, Nadia had presented herself, without papers or visa, at the Mexico-U.S. border checkpoint in Tijuana. She stated that she feared what would happen to her if she returned to Haiti and requested admission into the country. Under nearly 40-year-old programs intended to help Haitian migrants, she was “paroled” in – meaning she was allowed entry, and access to certain benefits and to a work permit, while her immigration case wended its way through the courts. Her boyfriend Franky was also admitted.

Once in the country, they were evaluated to see if they were eligible for some cash benefits for a security deposit and the first months’ rent, as well as fees for work permits, administered by Catholic Charities of San Diego, with federal funds from the Cuban Haitian Entrant Program (CHEP) established in 1980.

A church-run center for Haitians in Tijuana. (Photo: Ted Soqui)

Four months later, however, amidst a growing crackdown on undocumented migrants, Franky was arrested and deported to Haiti. He lives there now, penniless, reliant on what little money Nadia can send him from her earnings as a cleaner at a Marriott Hotel.

“We didn’t know we were going to live without each other,” Nadia, deeply depressed, anxious, and having problems with her memory, explains. “If I need to see his face, I have his pictures in my phone. This is where I go.”

Over the last couple of years, several thousand Haitians, claiming a credible fear of harm if they are returned to Haiti, have come through the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing. Once “paroled” in, many were given tickets by Catholic Charities and flown to Boston, New York and Florida. Many others took buses and trains to other points in California and the country. But large numbers stayed in the San Diego area. In 2016, 328 people received CHEP benefits – mainly cash assistance, administered by Catholic Charities, that was used to put security deposits on apartment rentals and to pay first-month’s rents — in San Diego. Hundreds of others in the city were paroled in, but denied the benefits. The following year, however, that number plummeted. In 2017, according to Nadine Toppozada, director of refugee and human trafficking services at Catholic Charities San Diego, only about 200 people in San Diego received CHEP benefits; this year that number is slated to fall below 90. The decrease is largely due to the fact that the men are no longer being admitted into the United States.

As a result of this new policy of dividing families at the border, San Diego now has large numbers of young, extremely poor, and frequently illiterate, Haitian women and children living in over-crowded communal apartments in low-end rental units. Those who qualify for CHEP benefits are helped financially and with navigating government bureaucracies, by Catholic Charities and other groups. Despite the help, the road they travel is miserable.

Ruth Monexil said she would not have tried to enter the country last fall had she known that her husband and teenage son would be detained. “When I live without my family, I don’t live well. I am depressed. I am not working. I don’t know where my son is, what’s going on. Last week, I was doing really bad, I felt like I was losing my head. I’m always feeling sad inside of me.”

Ivonnia Jean Baptiste and her daughter, San Diego. (Photo: Sasha Abramsky)

These days, Ruth lives with strangers, in a small gray-stucco apartment complex. Their living-room walls are entirely bare, the room’s only furniture a small TV on a little wooden table. Their kitchen is crowded with donated toys for the babies and toddlers. The bedrooms are cluttered, lived in by too many people.

The Cuban Haitian Entrant Program was begun in the 1980s to help Cuban and Haitian migrants, who met criteria laid down in the 1980 Refugee Education Assistance Act, to navigate life in the U.S.

Like so much of America’s immigration and welfare system, CHEP – described by Toppozada as “the Cuban Haitian welfare program” — was as much the result of happenstance as careful planning. For years, desperate Haitian boat people had been fleeing the kleptocracy, political violence and almost unimaginable poverty of their homeland. They had been washing up on Florida’s coastline and had, routinely, been rounded up, held in detention centers, and earmarked for fast-track deportation. Then, in the spring of 1980, Fidel Castro opened the port in Mariel to Cubans seeking to leave their island. In the months following, tens of thousands of Cuban boat people arrived in Florida.

Trump didn’t bother to hide his distaste for Haitian immigrants. They all had AIDS, he reportedly told advisers.

For geopolitical reasons (Cuba being a communist nation, with the Cold War in full bloom), Jimmy Carter’s administration felt it had to let the Cuban boat people stay in the U.S. But, the juxtaposition, one highlighted by the media and by human rights groups, was jarring – Cubans fleeing communism were being granted admission; Haitians fleeing the U.S.-backed Duvalier dictatorship, a dictatorship far worse than Castro’s, were being arrested and deported. To avoid a series of messy court cases and a public opinion battle they feared they couldn’t win, the administration included Haiti in the program. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement would process the vast number of boat people arriving daily in Florida during the early 1980s, the Haitian portion of which was “paroled” in while awaiting immigration hearings.

Until 2016 most Haitians were paroled in on the East Coast, if they managed to skirt aggressive Coast Guard patrols intended to stop them before they reached U.S. soil. All that changed in early 2016, when the Brazilian economy imploded and Haitian migrants there were cast adrift. Soon afterwards, Catholic Charities workers in California noted a large uptick in the numbers of Haitians requesting help on the land-crossings from Mexico. Immigration and Custom Enforcement numbers suggest somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 Haitian entrants arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing in 2016.

While the Obama’s administration sought to stem this influx, it also believed in keeping families together – and so men and women with children were paroled in, even while the administration made it clear it would seek, ultimately, to deport them. They were given the precious I-94 documents that allowed them to live and work in America, and to claim financial assistance through CHEP while their asylum cases wound through the courts. Under President Trump, however, the policy immediately tightened.

Trump didn’t bother to hide his distaste for Haitian immigrants. They all had AIDS, he reportedly told advisers in the run-up to his decision to roll back Temporary Protected Status for another group of Haitian migrants who had entered the country following the 2010 earthquake, and who had been able to avoid deportation because of the widespread devastation in Haiti.

Many of the women arrive in San Diego psychically broken and separated from their husbands and boyfriends, overwhelmed by having to care for newborns without help.

The new administration begrudgingly honored the government’s commitment to “parole” in the case of women and children, and to provide them documents allowing them access to benefits and work. The men, however, were detained.

“After we crossed the border, they released me and my child,” recalls Nounoune Jules. “But my husband is still in the detention center. I never knew they would keep him this long. He is sick; he cannot be in detention.”

Many of the women arrive in San Diego psychically broken. They are separated from their husbands and boyfriends, overwhelmed by having to care for newborns without help. Many of them are illiterate in their home tongue, unable to speak the new language and without the time or energy to enroll in ESL classes. They often wait for months for work permits from increasingly hostile federal agencies. Helped by Catholic Charities, they have been housed with other women migrants and their children, the crowded apartments rapidly becoming hubs for uniquely Trump-era “Modern Families” of female strangers and their children cast together by circumstance.

“I’m by myself,” says Marie Darline Remy of her loneliness. “On Wednesday, my child was sick. I had to go to the hospital. I spent the whole night awake. I came back home; no-one asked me, ‘How is your baby?’ Things like that make you feel alone.” She can’t even phone her husband in Tijuana. His phone isn’t working and she doesn’t know of any other way to contact him. He has never met their infant son.

Residents of Little Haiti, Tijuana. (Photo: Ted Soqui)

A clash between two Americas can be seen in the story of these Haitians. One is the welcoming, pluralist America of Emma Lazarus’ Statue of Liberty poem, willing to take a chance on impoverished and vulnerable new arrivals. The other is the nativist America that birthed Trump and, in turn, has been nurtured by his presidency.

The Haitian women and their children are the lucky recipients of a last-gasp generosity, beneficiaries of a stupendous humanitarian impulse that is now under assault. They are able to access cash, food and medical benefits; their children who are born after their arrival are U.S. citizens. But the men left behind in detention or in Tijuana are amongst the first victims of the new closed and narrow vision of how America treats those desperate migrants seeking succor on its shores.

And by separating the men and women, the government has condemned the women to a cruel purgatory – admitted into the country, but unable to see their partners, unable to envision a possible future in which their families will one day be made whole again.

Hermaine Pierre, jobless and adrift in San Diego, explains how her 2-year-old daughter has lost her appetite as she pines for her detained father. She herself struggles to sleep at night, terrified her husband will be deported to Haiti. One of Hermaine’s roommates also talks of not being able to sleep, as she worries about her boyfriend left behind in Tijuana.

Back in Haiti, Franky Simon puts on a brave façade when he talks to Nadia. He tells her he will find a way to get back to the United States to be with her and their child. He tells her he will one day be able to watch out for her again. But, in her heart of hearts, Nadia no longer believes in happy endings.

“I don’t think he’ll ever be able to come back here,” she admits softly. “I’m just living day by day. With no hope.”


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