DEL RIO, TEXAS — Thousands of Haitian immigrants encamped at Del Rio, Texas, after entering the U.S. through the Rio Grande are awaiting either deportation from U.S. authorities or deciding to stay put and seek asylum.
But how did these Haitian migrants make their way to Texas instead of entering from Florida — a state that’s closer to the Caribbean nation?
Many of those migrants, experts say, were likely already in Central America, as powerful natural disasters and an often-dysfunctional government prompted a steady flow of out-migration for more than a decade.
But now, with economic opportunities drying up in Latin America as the pandemic continues, Haitian migrants are seeking asylum in the U.S.
“The end goal is always the United States,” said Eduardo Gamarra, professor of political science at the Florida International University. “And the pattern is one that wasn’t really begun by the Haitians, it was begun by the Cubans. They’re the ones who set this trail.”
2010 earthquake spurs migration
A devastating earthquake in 2010 earthquake displaced more than 1.5 million people from the island nation. Afterwards, many Haitians left their homeland for South and Central America.
“Brazil was facing a labor shortage because they were building stadiums for the World Cup and the Olympics,” said Mark Schuller, a professor at Northern Illinois University and president of the Haitian Studies Association.
“Haitian migration was a solution to their labor problem,” he said.
In Brazil, Haitian migrants were granted work visas for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. They were also able to obtain permanent residency for humanitarian reasons. By August 2020, there were more than 143,000 Haitians in Brazil, according to El País, a daily newspaper in Spain.
Other South American countries also welcomed Haitian migrants, including Venezuela and Chile.
In Chile, the Haitian population jumped. In 2017, there were 64,567 Haitians in Chile, with an estimated 150,000 there just a year later, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank.
But after the Olympics and the need for “cheap labor” expired, Haitian migrants were pushed out of Brazil, said Gabrielle Apollon, the co-director of the Haiti Mining Justice and International Accountability Project.
The exodus of Haitian people fleeing the country can also be attributed to a “staggering increase in human rights violations” in Haiti within the past 10 years, Apollon said.
In August, the Department of State issued a Level 4 travel advisory for Haiti, urging Americans not to visit Haiti because of “kidnapping, crime, civil unrest and COVID-19.”
Haiti’s escalating violence and political instability prompted the United Nations Security Council earlier this year to publicly express its “deep concern” for the protracted political, security, constitutional and humanitarian crises tormenting Haiti. The Haitian president was assassinated in July.
Jacques Jonassaint, a former special envoy of President Emile Jonassaint to the Clinton administration, says in Chile many Haitians did not get work visas because of the country’s process.
“They did not obtain those visas; the Chilean government refused to give them the visas,” said Jonassaint. “And the reason for that is to get a permit to work in Chile there’s a process that is very lengthy and most Haitians don’t carry paperwork with them.”
Haitian nationals were able to obtain tourist visas in Chile, but in 2018, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera canceled temporary visas that allowed Haitians to move from tourists to migrants once they found a job.
Gamarra says it’s probable that many Haitians were undocumented in Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil and Ecuador, meaning they aren’t able to be deported legally to those countries.
“They can’t even be deported to Mexico because under international law, you have to be deported to the country where you have legal residence or a country has to agree to accept you,” he said. “And more than likely, none of these countries is willing to accept Haitian migrants because of their status.”
What the border looks like now
For three weeks, migrants have freely crossed the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, into Del Rio, Texas – a city of about 35,000 people.
Images of U.S. border agents chasing Haitian migrants on horseback prompted outrage Monday, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki calling the images “horrific” and Democratic lawmakers demanding accountability.
Mexican authorities have also blocked entry to Ciudad Acuña and will start deporting Haitians. (Mexico only accepts migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.)
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas visited Del Rio on Monday and said an additional 600 Homeland Security personnel have been sent there.
Jonassaint also pointed to the lack of persecution Haitians from their government as a reason why they are being expelled so quickly out of the U.S.
“If you look at the strict adherence to the law, both U.S. laws and international laws, those people coming in from Chile or through Mexico should not come at all in the United States, legitimately, asking or requesting for asylum because there’s no persecution by their government against them,” he said.
But Haitians pointed to the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and a recent destructive earthquake, both this year, in their homeland as reasons why they are fearful of returning to Haiti.
Karla M. McKanders, an immigration law expert at Vanderbilt University, said Haitian migration through Texas is not a new phenomenon.
“It’s important for people to recognize that Haitian nationals have been using this alternative route to get to the southern border for a few years, maybe even a little bit more than that,” McKanders said.
More than 320 migrants Haitians were flown back to Port-au-Prince on three flights Sunday, and Haiti says it is expecting six flights Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.
Trump enacted Title 42, which allowed for quick expulsion of asylum seekers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities last year. President Joe Biden continued the policy; however, children and some families are exempt.
Horace G. Campbell, professor of African American studies and political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, spoke strenuously against the deportations. “The United States is succumbing to white supremacist hysteria in this country by deporting these Haitians,” Campbell said.
Contributing: Sarah Elbeshbishi, Chelsey Cox, USA TODAY; The Associated Press