By Naeisha Rose
Guerline Jozef spends her days on calls, attending meetings and sending mass messages to anyone she thinks can help with her mission in helping forgotten or neglected migrants — especially those at the United States / Mexico border. As an activist for Haitian immigrant rights, and one of the co-founders of the Haitian Bridge Alliance (HBA), the past 3 years have been a busy one with Haiti continuously in the headlines and at the center of the country’s immigration debate.
At HBA, she serves as the executive director, where she works to bring awareness to the plight of the 3,000 Haitians stuck at the U.S./Mexico border and the countless others that made it through the border, but who are in detention prisons.
“We just started a scholarship programs for Haitians in Tijuana who want to go to the University there,” said Jozef. “We have established a scholarship for a group of 20 Haitians there. Everything will be finalized in May.”
Three of the students are pursuing pre-Med, two are pursuing engineering degrees and the other students are still deciding on their major, according to the nonprofit co-founder.
“It’s about $200 USD per student per month,” she said.
HBA is also creating a second scholarship for vocational schools in Mexico for 50 students.
“This scholarship will cover those who didn’t finish high school in Haiti who want to go into trade,” said Jozef. “If they did have a degree they would’ve had to pass a university test in Spanish to qualify, and for some that was a challenge.”
The students will be in school for about 10 months, similar to the U.S.
“We just don’t want them to worry about tuition,” said Jozef.
Earlier this year, Jozef was in Washington D.C. along with several panelists helping to explain the immigration crisis, what immigrants are up against and she also emphasized what supporters should do to help fellow Haitians.
“Basically, when you are an asylum seeker and you end up in an immigration detention center a judge has to decide if you are able to be released,” said Jozef. “Based on whether the attorney is able to make a case for you, or if your family will accept, then the judge will decide on a bond of how much they will release you. There is no reasoning of how much it will be.”
The bond could range anywhere between $1,500 to $80,000, according to Jozef.
“There is no exact science,” said Jozef who was exasperated. “They are at the mercy of the judge that day.”
One immigrant that she worked with had a son raise funds for a $20,000 bond.
“His son was able to raise some of that money and hire a bail bond and he paid part of it and was going to make payment after his release,” said Jozef. “That is how the Haitian Bridge Alliance learned of that case.”
Since that experience, HBA has been assisting Haitians facing uphill battles in the U.S., Mexico and Haiti.
“Right now we are able to assist in some way or another about 7,000 Haitians who came through the border, we are able to assist a lot of folks who are in detention, and we even visit those who were deported in November,” said Jozef. “We need to go to Congress and demand that they pass laws and bills for permanent solutions for undocumented folks,” said Jozef with passion.
Moderating the panel was Patrice Lawrence, the National Policy and Advocacy Director of the UndocuBlack Network, a multi-generational network of currently and formerly undocumented black people that fosters community and facilitates access to resources.
“Guerline is a powerhouse,” said Lawrence. “She is awesome and does a lot of work with the community.”
The summit, which was held at the University of the District of Columbia on Feb. 9 was packed with students and activists, young and old, who were brimming with energy and determined to share their immigration knowledge or to learn about the crisis facing Haitian migrants.
Loide Rosa Jorge, a D.C.-based U.S. Immigration and Nationality law attorney, was also on the panel.
“Temporary Protected Status is for people who are unable to go back to their home because of natural disasters, political strife and wars,” said Jorge. “The idea behind TPS is that you are going to have protections in the United States temporarily until whatever issue on the ground in your country of origin has passed over. For Haiti it was the 2010 earthquake.
“One thing that is very clear is that the country has not rehabilitated itself since the earthquake. For all sort of reasons it’s still not a place that people could go back and be completely 100 percent to where it was prior to the earthquake.”
Haiti has seen little relief in terms of tragedy and instability since the earthquake.
In the fall of 2010, a cholera outbreak was brought to the devastated country by U.N. peace officers after the earthquake, killing thousands and making people sick until this day.
In February, violent protests broke out against President Jovenel Moise because of rampant corruption in the Haitian government.
Growing up, Jozef understood what it was like being displaced because of a coup.
At 12-years-old, Jozef came to America with her parents and younger siblings in the early 1990s to visit a relative for the few months in Queens, New York, but ended up separated from the rest of her family back in Haiti.
“We did not come to stay per se,” said Jozef. “They had a coup in Haiti. They overthrew the government while we were here and we couldn’t go back home.”
In 1990, former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the general election to become the first democratically elected president in Haiti.
Aristide started serving his term in office in Feb. 7, 1991, but was overthrown by a military coup on Sept. 29, 1991.
“My older brother and younger siblings were still finishing school,” said Jozef. “They didn’t have time to come with us.”
Jozef had to move in with her uncle in South Ozone Park, and later started attending John Adams High School in Ozone Park, another neighborhood in Queens.
“From what I understood at the time, the opposition in the international community did not really want him in power,” said Jozef. “When a coup happens you don’t know who is going to get killed and what is going to happen next.”
While half her family restarted their lives in Queens, the other half was able to get through the mayhem as a result of her parents service to the local community.
Her mother Dilia was the owner of a mini-market and her father Roger was a community organizer, but later he became the mayor of Petion-Ville resulting in both her parents becoming public servants.
“My parents made sure that people were taken care of no matter what,” said Jozef. “That’s what I know.”
As the mayor, her father created a community center on a plot of their family’s land, which also included a church and a primary school within the church that still stands today. Jozef’s father also used the money he earned as the head of the community as a scholarship to send kids to school for higher education.
“Thanks to my parents public service, even when the entire country was upside down and people were destroying property, our home was safe,” said Jozef. “They had earned the respect of the community and the people around them. Our property and our homes were protected from the craziness because our family was simply there serving the community.”
Two months after the coup in Brazil, Hurricane Matthew – a Category 4 storm, hit a still recovering Haiti.
“Living through a failed government in Haiti, [the migrants] decided to migrate north to the United States,” said Jozef. “From the very southern end of Brazil some took a bus or train, but others walked to get to the United States. The average time to make that journey was three to five months based on their strength or if they had money to have food.”
The migrants crossed 11 borders to get to the U.S., according to Jozef.
“A lot of them went through the jungle of Nicaragua, they had to cross the waters of Panama and the mountains in Colombia,” said Jozef. “A lot of them died on the way and did not make it.”
At first the Haitian Bridge Alliance was not an organization, it was just a group of community folks who were helping to meet the needs of these immigrants, according to Jozef.
“We quickly realized that they needed a foundation,” said Jozef. “A group of five of us came together and formed the Haitian Bridge Alliance.”
Before she was a part of HBA, Jozef was a Dreamer in pre-9/11 America and she knew she had to work twice as hard to succeed.
Jozef pursued a degree in Technology while at New York City Technical College while working full time, and helping her parents at home while living in the Hamilton Heights section of Manhattan.
Jozef became a citizen in the early 2000s and briefly moved to New Jersey as she worked in telecommunications.
Some time in 2003, Jozef moved to California and while there were Haitian-Americans in the area, she felt the people lacked a sense of community.
“The first thing I did was try to find a community [and] to get in touch with the community and put people together,” said Jozef. “That is how I started Haiti in the West Coast and started connecting to Haitians who were here before and doing community activities.”
In late 2015, immigrants from Haiti started coming to the U.S./Mexican border, according to Jozef. Due to her work in the community, she became a de facto community leader for those trying to help Haitians seek asylum in America.
“That is how I got involved in the immigration crisis,” said Jozef. “Someone just reached out to me about Haitians at the border. I didn’t believe them because Haitians don’t normally come to the U.S. this way. They have always been Haitians coming, but not as a group. It didn’t make sense to me. They usually come through New York.”
Activism was instilled in Jozef at a very young age while growing up on a vegetable farm in Thomassin in Pétion-Ville, Haiti. Helping out was a no-brainer for her.
Jozef went to the border herself and met 12 asylum seekers who were lost and confused, and didn’t understand the distance between California and New York or Florida.
Under President Barack Obama in 2016, the asylum seekers were released in the U.S. under humanitarian parole.
“There were black people at the border who did not speak English, who did not have phones and had no way of communicating with the outside world,” said Jozef. “That’s when the work really started.”
In 2016, Jozef and other community leaders she had met since she moved to California started the HBA.
“These people were survivors of the earthquake that happened in 2010 that killed over 300,000 people in one day and leaving four-to-five million homeless,” said Jozef.
HBA’s initial goal was to help connect the migrants with family members in the East Coast, but later they had to figure out what to do to help the 400 to 500 individuals that had no family in the U.S.
The group found shelter, food and jobs for the immigrants, but they quickly found out there was still more to be done.
“A lot of them didn’t know what a computer was, so we had to start a computer program for them,” said Jozef. “We were able to connect with employers to get training for work, but they couldn’t because they didn’t know how to drive, so we started a driving program.”
HBA also helped to get the immigrants passports since they didn’t have a form of identification.
“We also connected to attorneys so they could look into their asylum status,” said Jozef. “All the services that we provided or continue to provide are free of charge, and we did translations and interpretations”
As Obama’s tenure as president came to an end, people were no longer being released under humanitarian parole.
“After 2016, they started putting people in immigration prison,” said Jozef. “We started a immigration prison program. We visited every immigration prison in the area, we would find out if they have any Haitians in there, and then we would visit them, put money in their account so they can eat and connect them with attorneys to get them out.”
After Obama left office, there were over 4,000 Haitians in immigrant prisons across the country.
“We continue to heavily work with that population fighting for their asylum cases.”