CHICAGO — Ricardo Monesteine and Carole Désarme will be spending Christmas with their two young children in a northwest suburb of Chicago this year. The Christmas tree is decorated, and the holiday feasts have already begun.
“I ate such a large meal of rice and beans at the buffet,” Monesteine said through a translator on a recent evening, “that I was too full to drink the kremas and eat the cake that followed.”
Less than three months prior, the family was slogging through the humid jungle of Panama, scared for their lives — an experience that prompted Monesteine to say, “I’d never [take that trip] again. I’d rather die.”
Monesteine and Désarme, in their mid-30s, are part of the most recent group of Haitian immigrants to enter the United States via Del Rio, Texas and make their way to the Midwest. While the Haitian American population has ballooned, particularly on the East coast in the past 10 years, a less-rapid growth has been taking place in the 12-state Midwest region.
The U.S. Census Bureau in 2009 indicated there were 830,000 Haitians living in the U.S., likely an undercount, according to some community leaders. Specific details for ethnicities or the Midwest region are not available for the 2020 census. However, a growing Haitian presence is evidenced by Haitian-American associations, community centers, places of business, worship centers
One group, Haitian Association of Indiana (HAI) said when the organization launched in 2008, only a few hundred Haitians lived in the city. They now estimate the population to be more than 10,000. “They were encouraged by the low cost of living,” said Jean-Hérard Gervé, a founding member of HAI.
From Chile to Chicago: One family’s perilous journey
Like many Haitians who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, Monesteine and Désarme, did not come directly. They flew first to South America. Both were from towns in Haiti’s northwest, majored in science administration and emigrated in their mid-20s in search of better economic opportunities. They met seven years ago at a mall in Santiago, Chile.
They had two children — now, a 5-year-old and an 8-month-old.
Désarme, who served as a quality assessor for one of the mall’s retail stores, was able to obtain Chilean residency papers. Monesteine worked in a tea factory and was not as lucky. When his temporary work visa ran out, it became impossible to find a job.
Plus, they began to feel a shift in racist attitudes.
“We felt the discrimination against our skin color grow,” Monesteine said. “People wouldn’t sit next to us on the bus.”
The couple planned to leave Chile on Aug. 8 — before the country’s presidential election on Dec. 19 — in which an ultra-conservative, right-wing candidate was holding the lead.
They chose the U.S. because Désarme’s brother lives in Chicago. As they prepared for departure, Monesteine suggested Désarme and their children, who had the required documents, fly directly to Mexico. He didn’t have those papers and planned to travel the lengthy and dangerous route on his own, then meet at the land border to cross into the U.S.
Desarme, in tears at the time, insisted, “We will do it together.”
Santiago is 4,700 miles from Del Rio, Texas. The trek is equivalent to crossing the United States from San Francisco to New York — twice. But unlike driving along U.S. I-80 — a straight and well-maintained thoroughfare with rest stops — the route, through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, was difficult and took the family 44 days.
On the way, the family encountered dangerous animals, strong-running rivers to cross, a harsh boat ride in Panama, the Mountain of Death — six hours up and four hours down — and thieves demanding money in exchange for their lives.
The family bussed for a few segments of the journey, but mostly, they walked, and often relied on travelers along the way to help carry their children.
When asked about the most difficult part of the trip, Monesteine answered, “The jungle in Panama, where we saw people and babies that had drowned. And the smell…”
Monesteine estimated the cost of their journey, to which their extended family contributed by selling property, was about $10,000 — an amount corroborated by others who took similar routes.
“We survived because,” Monesteine said, “of our firm belief in God, we are united as a couple to support one another, and we want to help our children.”
Once in Del Rio, the family faced new challenges. They spent six days under the Del Rio International Bridge and two days in jail. They received a card — green — to indicate they had children, and they completed the I-94 Arrival/Departure Form, standard paperwork handed out by airline attendants when flying into the country.
Désarme’s brother paid for the family’s plane tickets to Chicago.
As part of parole proceedings, they received a mobile phone to track their whereabouts. Monestiene and Désarme must text a daily photo to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.“If we don’t send the picture of one of us by a certain time, we hear a sound like a police siren from the phone.”
Welcome to Chicagoland
When the family arrived, the Coalition of Haitian American Organizations in the Chicagoland area, which recently developed a welcome committee, reached out to them and other Haitian immigrant families.
One coalition member, the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, started a GoFundMe charity page. Initially set up to help families who suffered from the 2021 earthquake, it later switched to resettle Haitians who arrived in the US. The museum and board members provided food, cash, healthcare, transportation and translation.
Another coalition member, the Haitian American Lawyers Association (HALA) of Illinois, ran a know-your-rights session in downtown Chicago on Dec. 4 for both new and long-term immigrants.
“Every situation is different,” said Anastasie M. Senat, the association’s president, as she ticked off numerous situations that people brought to the meeting — a couple whose child was born in Chile, another whose child was in removal proceedings.
“Some people have stayed in the shadows,” Senat said of a woman who had not, until then, had a clear understanding about her immigration status. “She could have been a U.S. citizen by now.”
The association will now match the clients with volunteer lawyers and start the process that best fits — request asylum, file for Temporary Protected Status, apply for work permits.
The Midwest is no stranger to immigrants
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, is home to the largest populations in the U.S. of Hmong and Somali refugees, as well as a growing Latino community. Its residents also include Eritreans, Ethiopians, Tibetans, Lao and Cambodians.
“A diverse group of people in the Minneapolis area have opened their hearts to help,” said Rose Gbadamassi, president of Haitian Community of Minnesota. She recently translated for one arriving family whose child needed medical attention.
Gbadamassi estimates that less than 5,000 Haitian-Americans live in the state. “Most might stay a year or two, then leave. It’s cold here.”
In Des Moines, Iowa, the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice (IMMJ) has been impacted by the recent border crisis “In my [13 years of] experience, I’ve never had a Haitian client in Iowa,” said Jody Mashek, co-legal director of IMMJ.
Now she has many. She covers Northwest and Southeast Iowa for IMMJ. Her Haitian clients are all in small towns. All arrived at the U.S. southern border from South America.
In Indianapolis, Indiana, HAI gathered funds, clothing, food and household furnishings to help families settle. Gervé, a founding member of HAI, was driving home recently when he received a call from one of the five recently arrived families his group is helping. They were hungry and hoped he could help with some food.
He headed to their home to meet them and drop off a meal. “We have limited resources,” he said, “but we do what we can.”
Monesteine and Désarme are hopeful for their future in the Midwest. They’ve met with lawyers since arriving in Chicago. “I’m studying for the Illinois driver’s test while Désarme is a mother,” Monesteine said.
Their five-year old is not yet enrolled in school, but they’ve been enjoying preparations for the holidays. And when asked about Chicago, Monesteine said, “It’s all good.”