On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would no longer accept Haitian refugees arriving at the border, stranding thousands in Tijuana and leaving in doubt the situation of many more who have been traveling on foot to the United States from Brazil since May.
In 2010, after a devastating earthquake killed tens of thousands in Haiti and displaced upwards of 1.5 million people—more than a tenth of the nation’s population—the United States began granting temporary protection visas to Haitians. “To the people of Haiti, we say clearly, and with conviction, you will not be forsaken,” said President Obama at the time. “You will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.”
Nearly 60,000 Haitians qualified, many of them individuals who had already been in the country without permission. Many more Haitians emigrated to Brazil, which instituted policies to attract them. By 2015, the U.S. Border Patrol was documenting less than 600 new Haitian border arrivals in San Diego and Miami for the year.
But this year, economic and political instability in Brazil has forced many of the over 65,000 Haitians in that country to leave. Between May and September, over 5,000 arrived at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry.
In explaining the United States’ sudden change in policy, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson argued that conditions in Haiti “had improved sufficiently to permit the U.S. government to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis.”
But when questioned on the point in a Congressional hearing Thursday, Director of Immigrant and Customs Enforcement Sarah Saldaña offered not improvements but the numbers of migrants supposedly coming as an explanation for the policy. “I was just in the Central American region,” Saldaña told Congressman John Conyers, “and heard from a number of those countries—El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala—that they’re aware of, in communication with their fellow governments in South and Central America—40,000 Haitians that are en route to the United States.” (Her testimony on Haiti begins at the 30-minute mark here.)
“Right now the emergency situation that I’m aware of,” she said, “is on the California border, with some 4,000 Haitians there.”
“We are devastated,” says Pastor Bill Jenkins, head of the Christ United Methodist Ministry Center, which has provided temporary shelter and support to over 3,000 Haitian arrivals since May (95 percent of whom have since traveled on, mostly to family in Florida or the New York area). “We think it’s just politics; immigration is the most divisive word in the English language right now, probably around the world.”
Jenkins also notes that while the United States, may have changed its policy, Haiti itself is not currently taking back its deported citizens. Consequently, he argues, refugees will either find themselves wandering from expulsion to expulsion in Central and South America—a process that has already begun—or face potentially indefinite detention in the United States. “Someone is going to be stuck with a terrible humanitarian crisis.”
At the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice of San Diego County, which has been involved in helping mediate issues among different groups working with refugees (including I.C.E.), lead organizer Cristina Hernandez agrees. “We are concerned that there are going to be many many people stuck in detention. These are families, women with children, fathers and sons and brothers, people who have been through so much. We are concerned that they are going to be in inhumane detention centers for who knows how long.”
Ginger Jacobs, an immigration attorney and the chair of the San Diego Immigration Rights Center, expressed shock at the rapid about-face in U.S. policy. “The statement that country conditions have changed in Haiti, such that it is now safe to go back, flies contrary to State department reports released as recently as this month,” she notes. What the United States is responding to, she feels, is “the floodgates issue.” “Hearing that there were thousands more making their way up through South America, I think that perhaps they responded in a way that they hoped would deter more folks from coming to the border.”
The problem, though, is that both for those who have already arrived at the border, and even for many of those on the way, it’s too late to change course. “These guys have spent thousands of dollars on smugglers, they’ve traveled three to four months on a very dangerous journey,” she points out. “They’ve suffered a lot on the way, many have been victims of crime. And they know they can’t go back to Haiti because it remains completely devastated.”
In Tijuana, many Jacobs has talked to are baffled. “They have nowhere to go,” she says. “They thought they had appointments with the port of entry; the municipal government in Tijuana was handing out appointments to keep things orderly because there were hundreds coming to the port. Now according to the policy, they’re going to come to the appointment, be detained, arrested and deported.”
“I fear they’re going to try and enter through the desert,” she adds. “And I think we all know there can be a lot of human tragedy that happens when people come through there.”
For Jean, a Haitian refugee who arrived in August after a four-month trip with his now 8-months-pregnant wife, Secretary Johnson’s explanation for the change in policy is deeply troubling. “I am a professional, I went to school for what I do. If there was work there [in Haiti], why would I risk my life, my pregnant wife and my unborn child to come here?”