As the most recent influx of Haitian asylum seekers to the U.S. arrived at the US-Mexico border, a common initial misconception was that they were coming directly from Haiti. However, the vast majority had made the months-long journey from countries in South America, mainly Brazil and Chile. To explain some other basic differences, The Haitian Times has compiled a quick fact sheet about Haitians arriving at the US-Mexico border and those who make the journey via sea.
|Haitian fleeing via sea||Haitians fleeing via land|
|How the migration route emerged||During the 19th century, it was common for Haitians to be involved in trade and commerce among the Caribbean islands. Some worked on cruise ships and ports. Others island-hopped across the region for work and leisure, including to peninsulas like South Florida.||For generations, people between the two continents have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, as a natural flow between the two countries for trade.|
Influxes from Latin America typically occur when the U.S. faces labor shortages or when conditions in migrants’ home countries become unlivable.
|How Haitians began using the route to immigrate||In the 1970s, when the brutal Duvalier dictatorship came into being, Haitians first began fleeing to escape government retaliation and death. Some chose to make the perilous 720-mile journey to South Florida via sea. |
This type of migration has continued through the years, with numbers surging after major crises throughout the last four decades.
In the past few months, sea journeys have resumed as Haiti’s turmoil increased. In September, Coast Guard patrol intercepted eight Haitian asylum seekers close to West Palm Beach and 104 asylum seekers miles away from Miami.
|Following the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, thousands fled the country to live and work in South America, primarily in Brazil and Chile. Brazil, in particular, sourced labor from Haiti to build its World Cup and Olympics facilities in 2016.|
For many years, many Haitians in South and Central America worked and built lives in those counties. However, many also faced racism.
Eventually, job opportunities in Brazil dried up, Chile began implementing increasingly strict immigration policies, COVID-19 eliminated work opportunities and the Biden Administration extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS), many Haitians decided to leave Latin America for the U.S.
|Nature of the journey||Journey by sea can take weeks.|
Refugees fled on fishing boats, often running out of food and resorting to drinking sea water. Others paid smugglers who promised better boats for passage.
Many died at sea from dehydration, trauma and capsized vessels.
|Journey through land takes months.|
The journey from South America has stretched across nearly 7,000 miles -- from Brazil to the U.S. That leg takes migrants through about a dozen countries, including the Darién Gap, the lawless stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama.
Many migrants who made the trek spoke of oppressive heat and widespread rape and other abuses. Many perished en route from a variety of factors.
|Languages spoken||Mainly Creole||Spanish, French, Portuguese, Creole, English|
|Education level||Little-to-no formal schooling, frequently experienced unemployment in Haiti||Mix of professionals with degrees and others with some formal education|
|Cost of journey||Building the boats for the journey took three months and cost on average between $6,500 and $8,000 per person. The boats fit roughly 145 people.||Journey can span months and the cost to cross the border ranges from $6,000-$10,000. The money went toward food and lodging across territories, and to bribe bandits and immigration at various borders.|
|What has changed: Haiti||Haiti has seen 11 presidents ascend to power since Duvalier fled in 1986. The country is no longer under a dictatorship.||Since 2010, Haiti has further been ravaged by political instability, gang violence, lack of economic opportunity and the effects of yet another devastating earthquake in August 2021.|
|What has changed: The U.S.||At the time, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was the agency in charge of handling immigration. They were tasked with strengthening border controls and also launched controversial deportation programs, beginning in the 1950s.||Sept. 11, 2011, drastically changed the structure of the U.S. government and the way it viewed immigration and homeland security.|
The INS ceased to exist in 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created under the Bush administration. Three new agencies assumed INS responsibilities: the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
|US response to Haitian refugees||The Haitians who came by boat were taken into custody by INS authorities. They were often told they were not eligible for asylum and faced prison in the U.S. if they stayed.||Last month, images circulated of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) authorities on horseback aggressively chasing asylum seekers who attempted to cross the border from Mexico. Vice President Kamala Harris voiced her discontent with the treatment of the asylum seekers and the Department of Homeland Security began an investigation into CBP’s practices. |
Meanwhile, the Biden administration sent planes filled with asylum seekers back to Haiti in what was termed a “deportation blitz.”
The Democrats proposed immigration bill was rejected by the Senate on Sept. 29, and the fate of many asylum seekers, just like those decades ago, remains in limbo.
|Haiti response to Haitian refugees||In an interview with The Miami News in 1981, Duvalier stated that there was nothing he could do to stop people from fleeing by boat.||Prime Minister Ariel Henry released a pre-recorded message in September regarding the asylum seekers at the border, saying “We do not challenge the right of a sovereign state to control the entry borders into its territory, or to send back to the country of origin those who enter a country illegally.”|
|Haitian Diaspora response to Haitian refugees||Many organizations in the U.S., including The Haitian Centers Council and Haitian Americans United for Progress, put forward a petition in support of those fleeing by sea in 1997.||Members of the diaspora gathered to volunteer to help asylum seekers at the border.|
Sources: Bloomberg, Daily Mail, Duke Law School, Human Rights Watch, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Migration Policy Institute, National Public Radio, ReliefWeb, Society for Applied Anthropology, Spectrum News 13, The Haitian Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, United Nations, USA Today, USCIS
When you join The Haitian Times family, you’ll get unlimited digital access to high-quality journalism about Haiti and Haitians you won’t get anywhere else. We’ve been at this for 20 years and pride ourselves on representing you, our diaspora experience and a holistic view of Haiti that larger media doesn’t show you.
Join now or renew to get:
— Instant access to one-of-kind stories and special reports
— Local news from our communities (especially New York and Florida)
— Profiles of Haitians at the top of their fields
— Downloadable lists and resources about Haitian culture
— Membership merch, perks and special invitations
First-time subscribers also receive a special welcome gift handmade in Haiti by expert artisans! Do it for the culture and support Black-owned businesses.
If you’re seeing this message but you’re already a subscriber, you can log in for immediate access to this story.