Haitian migrants released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Haitian migrants released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Haitian migrants released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Photo Credit: Guerline Jozef

By Gage Norris

SAN DIEGO, CA — Right now, the Haitian Methodist Church of San Diego is overwhelmed.

For the past four months, church members and members of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a collective of community leaders working to help the Haitian community and recent migrants to the U.S., have been facilitating the arrival of massive numbers of Haitians fleeing Brazil seeking a better life. They have received over 2,000 migrants so far, and expect nearly three times that number in the coming months.

“This has quickly become a crisis,” said Guerline Jozef, 38, activist and community liaison for the Haitian Bridge Alliance. “They are coming, and it’s not going to stop any time soon.”

This sudden exodus has been almost six years in the making. In the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in 2010, many Haitians decided to seek visas in Brazil. At the time, the Brazilian labor market was strong, and the country’s deportation policies relatively lax compared to the U.S. Those who were well off were able to get tourist visas, and those who weren’t sought work with employers who could start their visa process.

Then in 2012, responding to the increasing number of Haitians entering Brazil through illegal smuggling routes that took migrants by plane to a neighboring countries and then on a dangerous journey through the Amazon jungle, the government began issuing humanitarian visas in Port-au-Prince. Though limited in number, these were relatively easy to obtain, and word quickly spread that Brazil would not actively turn Haitians away. Over twenty thousand Haitians have relocated to Brazil since the earthquake.

But in early 2015, the Brazilian economy crashed, putting large numbers of Brazilians and Haitians out of work. Subsequent political scandals have only compounded the economic crisis, and as of early August, unemployment rates were just over 10 percent. Many Haitians living in Brazil, unable to find jobs and support themselves, have set their sights on the United States.

Haitians line up to apply for visas outside the Brazilian embassy in Port-au-Prince.

The journey for these migrants is incredibly difficult and dangerous. To make it from Brazil to the port of entry between Mexico and San Ysidro, California, they must cross 11 different national borders. They make most of the voyage on foot, through jungles, deserts, and mountain ranges. It takes between three to six months, based on how fast they can walk, if they have money to pay for occasional transport, and if they are traveling with children or elders. While some countries have been granting the migrants passage, others haven’t, forcing them to hire smugglers to take them around border checkpoints. Many do not survive the journey.

Compared to the journey itself, the process of entering the United States is fairly simple. Most Haitians come with no identification and face longer background checks of about a week or two. If they are cleared, and can prove they have family or friends ready to receive them, they are given an I-94 form and what amounts to a temporary visa, placed on busses, and taken to the team of volunteers working at the Haitian Methodist Church of San Diego. Lately, the team receives between 40 to 60 new migrants each day.

Most migrants stay with the team for about a week and a half. The team works out-of-pocket and nearly around the clock to facilitate the migrants’ transition into the country, providing food, basic immigration education and counsel, and helping to reunite them with their friends and family. It is no easy task.

“It’s crazy. It’s insane!” laughed Jozef. “At the church, we can shelter 24 people, but we have 215. We have people sleeping on pews, on carpets, wherever they might find a place to put their bags and sleep.”

The team prepares over 200 meals at a time, using a neighboring church’s food kitchen. They use a convoy of vans to cart the trays upon trays of rice and chicken between churches. Due to the lack of space at the church, community members have been volunteering to house three or four migrants at a time. Faced with the ever-increasing number of migrants crossing the border at San Ysidro, the Haitian Bridge Alliance is actively looking to expand their physical location, services, and create new partnerships with similar organizations in other states.

Jozef and her team get dozens of calls a day from migrants who have moved out of California to join family and friends in places such as New York, Miami, and Boston, but who are still struggling to navigate the social and legal process of becoming documented. Some find themselves turned away by friends and family, especially if those families still have undocumented members living with them.

“We’ve quickly learned that some states are less friendly to migrants than others,” said Jozef, recalling the story of one man who went from California to Missouri. “We called and found out he’d been in jail since he’d got there. From the moment he went to his set court date, they cuffed him and jailed him.”

Despite the many difficulties they face after arrival in the U.S., Jozef says the overall attitude of most recent Haitian migrants is positive. “Once they’re here,” she says, “there’s the everyday battle: of becoming legal, of finding work, of being black in America. But, at least they’re here.”

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