7,000 miles to salvation

7,000 miles to salvation

Published on December 14, 2016

Fleeing a Brazilian recession, a migrant embarks on a long, treacherous journey by land to the U.S. Will he make it?

In Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica

On the 41st day of his journey to the United States,  Dumano Aristide woke up in a dust-caked tent along the Pan-American Highway, with 4,000 miles down, 3,000 miles to go. There were three others in his tiny tent and 2,000 migrants camped out in this border town and tens of thousands more making this same trek through the Western Hemisphere, a trip that Aristide had not yet begun to regret.

Because on this day, at least, a 29-year-old Haitian named Aristide had a plan. He knew someone who knew someone who might be able to smuggle him across the next border, this one guarded by the Nicaraguan military.

Above : A migrant enters his tent in Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, along the Nicaraguan border, where an encampment of migrants stretches for a quarter-mile. Guarded by the Nicaraguan military, the border has been closed because of a surge in migrants trying to head north. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

So he packed a bag with his last two shirts and tossed on a ballcap that read “Keep Calm and Respect My Dopeness.” He smoothed a pocket holding close to $1,000, wired two days earlier by his mother, a hotel worker in Orlando whom he had not seen in 16 years. He rushed over to Abubakari Bawah, a Ghanaian friend he made along the route. A trip this long could be measured only in segments, and here began the next 50 miles.

“We have to try this,” Aristide told Bawah on Sept. 19.

Aristide was now one in a surging number of people — mostly from Haiti and Africa — going by bus and by foot from the Amazon to the Rio Grande, marking a new and risky pattern of movement into North America. While Mexicans and Central Americans for years defined migration to the United States, this emerging wave is making a much longer and more harrowing journey on the mere chance to carve out better lives.

LEFT: Dumano Aristide, right, of Haiti and his friend Abubakari Bawah of Ghana began a long, dangerous trek in South America to reach the United States, traveling along the Pan-American Highway. RIGHT: A discarded mattress is left along the highway in Peñas Blancas, 4,000 miles from where Aristide began. (Photos by Chico Harlan and Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The path northward has been driven by a sustained recession in Brazil, which had long been a magnet for low-wage laborers and where most of the migrants had worked, helping to build roads and construct Olympic stadiums.

Yet even as Aristide and as many as 20,000 other migrants make their way across 10 countries, dealing with hunger and exhaustion and false turns, they face an unexpected peril in the country they hope to call their new home.

The United States was a welcoming place for some migrants in the past, but a sudden change in approach by the Obama administration, followed by the presidential election of tough-on-immigration Donald Trump, left the migrants in a new crisis with echoes across the developed world. They had been pushed out of the Western Hemisphere’s second-largest economy, closed off from its first, and they were now stuck in between. Although their days along this journey were filled with questions of basic survival, their future — whether they would ever be accepted into the United States — was at the mercy of turbulent economic and political forces far from their control.

“This is about what happens when you have a large flow of labor migration combined with a boom-and-bust economy,” said Roeland de Wilde, who is the top International Organization for Migration official in Costa Rica and who has interviewed migrants making this trip. “The boom attracts large numbers, and then the bust creates an unplanned secondary, outward migration. This is a phenomenon that is just emerging in the public eye.”

Aristide wound up at this northernmost point in Costa Rica only after trying so many other paths to get the life he wanted. At the time of Haiti’s massive earthquake, in 2010, Aristide was studying pediatrics. Under a crush of new disaster-related costs, the government revoked his scholarship. Aristide’s family lacked the money to keep him in school, so he fled for Curitiba, Brazil, an inland city where he worked two jobs for 17 hours a day. He kneaded dough at a pastry shop and handled packages at a warehouse. But in 2015, as Brazil’s economy faltered, he lost the warehouse job. His take-home pay, used partly to support his younger brother back home, fell by more than a third. There was no money for school. He decided to leave.

“I went to Brazil to save my life” was how Aristide put it, “but it was a waste of time.”

Just to reach Costa Rica, Aristide passed through five countries, traveling by bus along snow-capped mountain ranges and walking for days through some of the world’s remotest jungle. He used palm fronds as blankets and pulled bread out of trash cans for meals — unwilling, as some migrants did on the run, to eat uncooked spaghetti. Because he never knew what immigration rules he was breaking or which authorities might be after him, he kept his shoes on when he slept.

Once here, he had no clear way out. The border with Nicaragua — the country to the north — was only up the road, but it had been closed because of the surge of migrants.

As a result, tents here stretched along the road for a quarter-mile, winding up into muddy hillsides, staked with sticks or pinned down with beer bottles. Mothers breast-fed babies, and men washed themselves in a stream. Birds and howler monkeys squawked from tree limbs. Green, stale water ran from a bank of portable toilets that Aristide considered so nasty that he would splash rubbing alcohol under his nose when he used them as a way to mask the stench.

One of the thousands of migrants who are stuck in Peñas Blancas bathes in the polluted river near the town. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Migrants tried to escape over mountains and by boat, guided by a legion of smugglers who pulled up in beat-up 1990s sedans touting their plans. But many of the purported escapes were setups, in which hikes along the mountainside turned into orchestrated robberies at knife- or gunpoint, according to scores of migrants who returned to the camp, without money, after such incidents.

Aristide had heard about the latest potential escape route from a Haitian with dreadlocks whom other migrants called Rasta Man. The night before, Rasta Man had woven through the camp, whispering to several dozen people that they should scrounge up whatever money they had and find a way to a nearby beach on the Pacific Ocean. They needed to be there by sunset. The details, as always, were vague.

“It’s a dangerous trip,” said Bawah, 29, the more cautious of the two. “You can’t vet anything.”

“We have no power,” Aristide said. “I’m scared, too.”

By late afternoon, Aristide and Bawah pushed onto a pair of crowded buses — “Liberia-Frontera Ruta 51,” they said on the windshield — and headed to a town 15 miles south. They split cab fare to the beach, a 30-minute ride. About 80 migrants were there as night fell, and Aristide, who paid the smugglers $900 for the trip, figured that he was clearing one of the final hurdles on the path to the United States.

Under a lightning storm, four wooden boats carrying the migrants pushed off from the coast.

LEFT: Bawah, seen here in the encampment along the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, met Aristide in Tumbes, Peru. Despite the surmounting dangers of their trip, both push on. RIGHT: A backpack is abandoned in the Peñas Blancas encampment, which most migrants reached overland. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Mapping the journey north

Six weeks earlier, when he left Brazil, Aristide felt confident that he knew what was ahead of him. Several of the Haitians he met in Brazil had set off on the journey, switching their Facebook profile pictures to U.S. flags when they arrived successfully. His cousin made the trip months earlier, too, and now he is living in Orlando. The worst that could happen, Aristide figured, is that he would worry his mother, who had hung up the phone when he told her he was coming.

“This one decision I’m going to make by myself,” he remembered telling her. “Everything will be okay.”

During the journey, Aristide quickly burned through his own savings and grew dependent on wire transfers from several family members, including his mother, half-brother and half-sister, all living in Florida. Aristide’s half-brother, Tevin Dugazon, 34, said he took on debt of his own — borrowing from a business partner — to help fund the journey; the family sent Aristide at least $6,000. The stress of Aristide’s trip weighed on his mother, who barely had an appetite and lost more than 20 pounds.

“She was a beautiful, healthy woman,” Dugazon said. “Now she’s like a stick.”

Aristide loathed the idea of himself as a beleaguered migrant. He learned some English in Haiti and told people he was “very intelligent.” He read U.S. newspapers on his smartphone. He kept a careful log on Google Maps of his trip, dropping pins in the dozens of towns he crossed.

Rio Branco, in northwestern Brazil, where he headed west by bus, beginning a slow curl across the western coast of South America.

Tumbes, Peru, where he met Bawah, who climbed aboard a bus — muttering in English — minutes after surrendering his smartphone to a predatory border policeman.

Pasto, Colombia, where they splurged for a motel — only to find a room without a bed.

Capurganá, Colombia, right at the doorstep of Panama, where all roads stopped and the only way through was a 40-mile trek through jungle.

The Darién Gap, an 100-square-mile maze of ravines and river crossings on the Panama-Colombia border, a refuge for venomous snakes and narcotics traffickers, where they walked for six days, guided in by smugglers, and where their shoes decomposed and they survived on salted rice.

“Passing this way — it’s misery,” he said.

A reporter met Aristide and Bawah in Costa Rica in late September and kept in touch via WhatsApp chats and regular phone calls during the next 3,000 miles of their journey. The Post reconvened with the two migrants as they neared the U.S. border.

Far removed from the cataclysms that have caused attention-grabbing refugee flows into Europe, the journey from Brazil represents an extreme version of a more common tale: one in which jobs and money compel people to move. Despite the spike in people fleeing war and persecution, 95 percent of global migrants move for economic reasons, according to an International Monetary Fund report published in October. Most of those people move from emerging to advanced economies.

Their journey out of Brazil is causing a rapid shift in the composition of people showing up at the U.S. border, where for decades the flow was dominated by Mexicans and, more recently, Central Americans.

Although a trickle of people have made this cross-continental journey for years, the numbers barely registered among immigration authorities in Latin America. That changed in late spring, when migrants began pooling at bus terminals in the lower Amazon and in jungle outposts once used only by tribes and adventure tourists and eventually began gathering at border crossings in Central America and Mexico. Hardly any had passports or visas.

Costa Rican officials said they were expecting 20,000 migrants — about 85 percent from Haiti, the others from Africa — to pass through the country by the end of the year. Mexican officials offered similar numbers.

“You can put the most powerful army across the border,” Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís has said, “and they will come through.”

On Sept. 19, after four hours at sea, Aristide’s boat arrived in the middle of the night somewhere along the northern Nicaraguan coast. The migrants dashed two or three hours through the jungle, packed into the back of a truck and were in Honduras by sunrise.

“Nothing bad happened,” Bawah said by telephone two days later. “Barbed wires cutting us. All of my skin is full of scars, but that is all.”

Migrants in Peñas Blancas jostle to get on a bus that will take them to the beach, where they hope they can board a boat, operated by smugglers, that will sneak them into Nicaragua. Aristide said he paid the smugglers $900 for the trip. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A convergence of Haitians

Aristide was still in Honduras later that week, staying with seven others in a garage, when one morning his phone — programmed to filter news about Haiti — pinged with alerts. He tried to make sense of what was happening. He read articles and watched one or two YouTube news videos, each with similar phrases.

“Sudden shift . . .”

“Resuming removals . . .”

“Processed and detained . . .”

“What is happening?” Aristide asked Bawah.

For months, Haitians had been arriving at the U.S. border without visas and other documents. While that was usually a recipe for swift deportation, Haitians benefited from a policy drawn up after the 2010 earthquake that essentially granted them admittance to the United States with a special humanitarian parole. They could then remain in the country for years. If there was any surprise, immigration experts say, it’s that so few — until recently — took advantage. In 2014 and 2015, according to government records, about one Haitian arrived daily at the southern border.

On Aug. 9, Dumano Aristide, a Haitian, set out from Brazil on a months-long journey across 10 countries, hoping

to make it into the United States by crossing the Mexican border with California.

Route via:









Peñas Blancas




He left Haiti and began working in Brazil in 2013.


Darién Gap






Sao Paulo



But that changed in late May, as the first wave of migrants crossed through Honduras, then Guatemala, then Mexico. Bus routes ended at the Mexican border with California, and in Tijuana, just south of San Diego, Mexican immigration authorities gathered up aid workers and warned them to prepare for a massive influx. Soon, shelters once used as way stations for recent deportees from the United States were instead being filled with migrants. And when those shelter beds filled up, migrants started sleeping on the streets. Police in Tijuana closed down several areas to traffic. Hundreds of migrants were arriving daily, aid workers said.

Then, on Sept. 22, in a jarring reminder of the journey’s uncertainty, the Obama administration reversed its stance toward Haitians.

The special privileges were revoked.

New arrivals faced a far higher probability of being detained and then deported.

“The situation in Haiti has improved sufficiently to permit” the policy change, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement.

For Africans, their odds of remaining in the United States depended on the specifics of their cases. Those facing persecution or war in their home countries stood a chance at asylum. Others were likely to be deported. But for Haitians, the U.S. policy shift spelled particular doom: Even before the 10-country journey, they made lives outside Haiti. Now, they stood to be returned there.

“You couldn’t have a shift that’s more night and day,” said Ginger Jacobs, an immigration lawyer in San Diego.

Hurricane Matthew, which blitzed Haiti in October, briefly placed a stop on deportation flights from the United States to Port-au-Prince. But that only worsened a backlog at U.S. immigration detention facilities, where new arrivals are held while awaiting removal. The number of people held in U.S. immigration detention facilities soared by 7,000 — more than half of that because of the Haitian influx — leaving the United States scrambling to find additional bed space.

Nevertheless, Aristide and Bawah continued their journey north, and by the time they made it to Tijuana, a common spot to apply for acceptance into the United States, they found a town so overrun with migrants that they decided to backtrack to a smaller border town, Mexicali, three hours to the east, to await their turn to meet with U.S. immigration in a calmer place.

“People keep coming,” Aristide said to Bawah after they arrived in Mexicali.

“It’s not easy,” Bawah said. “America cannot take care of everybody.”

“I think they’re not going to allow us to enter,” Aristide said.

Two migrants reach out to friends and family in a shelter in Peñas Blancas. Many of them use their smartphones to keep track of their journey and to keep in touch with loved ones, including those who have made it to the United States. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

‘I should have stayed’

In the flat dust bowl of Mexicali, nose to nose with California, Aristide and Bawah took shelter with nine other migrants in an abandoned strip of buildings, many of which were little more than rubble, graffiti and copper wire.

During his first day there, Aristide visited a booth run by Mexican immigration authorities near the border, the first step to gain a spot in the long wait for admittance to cross into the United States. He received a stamped number, and as the weeks dragged on, he showed up daily at the booth, hoping his would be called. And when the authorities did not announce his number — U.S. officials, trying to manage the surge, had begun to curtail the number they accepted daily — he would return to the rental and pass the time camped out in a courtyard on a dirty love seat, next to a broken-down car and a discarded toilet.

He read the Bible and science fiction books.

He ate plain pieces of white bread, a loaf of which he kept next to his mattress on the floor.

No longer were American flags popping up on Facebook as profile pictures. A few migrants, before crossing the border for their immigration meetings, took to selling their phones, figuring they would not need them in detention. Even those who held onto their gadgets went dark. Aristide, after some Googling, pulled up a map of U.S. immigration detention facilities. California. New Mexico. Georgia.

“Could I go anywhere?” he asked. “Could I see my family? Would my family even know? Could I get a lawyer?”

And if the journey seemed doomed, why were people still coming? Why was he still waiting? He did not know the answers, and for the first time since his journey began, he felt pain creep across his left shoulder, something he attributed to anxiety. Occasionally, his nose bled. His mother, in one of their video chats, said that he should return to Haiti on his own — something he quickly told her that he would not do.

“I can feel the problems in my heart,” Aristide said. “I made this whole trip. Even just to hug my mom one time.”

He paused.

“Then they can deport me,” he said.

He was still waiting in Mexicali, on the 91st day of his journey, when Trump was elected president. He had little sense of how Americans felt toward migrants, but the election of Trump, he figured, probably signaled that he would not be welcome. He watched a feed of CNN on his phone as the results came in. He called his mom. They both cried. He could not sleep, even as his roommates dozed off, and by the next day, he was still on his stomach, his phone plugged in, watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, shocked by the faces of her supporters.

“Oh wow, it’s the end of the world,” Aristide said.

He tried to think through being deported, something he now thought was nearly certain. Would the United States take him back to Haiti on a plane? How would he feel as Port-au-Prince came into view? He had not been in the country since 2012. Leaving Brazil, he said, was a profound mistake.

“I should have stayed,” he said. “If somebody had told me, ‘Oh, Dumano, you don’t have no chance’ — seriously, I would have stayed. I wouldn’t have tried. But I didn’t know.”

One afternoon, tired of sitting in the courtyard, Aristide and Bawah walked closer to the border, about a mile from their rental. The temperature touched 95 degrees, and they passed window-tinting shops, small bars with leathery men, empty streets, a store selling sombreros and cowboy hats, and a store for mechanic uniforms.

And then, in the middle of downtown, they saw migrants everywhere. Faces peering from second-floor balconies, from hostels, inside taquerias. Hundreds were sleeping in the hallways above Bar 13 Negro. Bawah talked about how empty Mexicali must have been before the migrants got here.

“Mexico is a big country,” he said, “but all of the Mexican people must be in America.”

Aristide laughed.

As they reached the border, at the edge of downtown, Aristide removed his hat and brushed some sweat. In the distance, about 150 feet away, an American flag was taut in a stiff breeze. They walked past Hotel del Norte and came to a fence capped with barbed wire. “Zona Federal,” it said. “Prohibido.”

“That is the U.S.,” Bawah said, pointing.

“There are so many walls,” Aristide said. “One and then two.”

“Even if you jump one wall,” Bawah said, “there is another waiting for you.”

On the other side, in California, there was a Starbucks and a stadium-seating movie theater, gas stations, a Jack in the Box, a 7-Eleven and an AutoZone. All of them within a mile.

Aristide pointed his phone at the U.S. flag, holding it low by his hip, as if trying not to be noticed. If he had come 7,000 miles, he was going to take a photo.

“There are security cameras everywhere,” he said.

His phone snapped the picture.

Dusk was coming, and the sun was low. A harsh light flooded the lens.

In the only photo Aristide took of the flag, America looked nothing like what he had hoped for.


Aristide and Bawah walk through the blighted streets of Mexicali, a Mexican city along the border with California. Here, they wait weeks for an appointment with immigration authorities. (Chico Harlan/The Washington Post)

The last move

On Nov. 22, Bawah’s number was finally called. Aristide’s was called Dec. 2. Both were interrogated by immigration officials and bused to immigration detention centers, Bawah’s in California, Aristide’s in Arizona.

At the facility in Calexico, Calif., surrounded by two layers of razor wire, Bawah was stripped of his belongings and given a navy jumpsuit. He slept in a hall with 63 others. Even after he arrived there, he retained some hope and began pressing for an asylum claim. But then he called four lawyers who said they were too overloaded to take him on, and he met another Ghanaian, also pursuing asylum, who had been at the facility for a year.

“Hearing that, my heart was beating like it would explode,” Bawah said in an empty visitation room.

Aristide was sent to a facility a two hours’ drive away, in San Luis, Ariz., where he too surrendered his belongings and then seemed to disappear. His family searched a database to locate detainees and found nothing. (His name had been entered improperly.) His half-sister pinged him with WhatsApp messages but never heard back. His mother fell sick from the stress, Dugazon, Aristide’s half-brother, said.

In a phone interview from the Arizona facility, Aristide said he had been pelted with “so many questions” from U.S. immigration authorities before he was detained. They asked him whether he feared for his life in returning to Haiti, and he said he did not. And even though he had not tried to sneak into the country, they asked him whether he knew he committed a crime by trying to enter without a visa. He said he did.

Finally, they asked him why he had come.

“It was my best choice,” he said, and though he knew he might be deported, he was not certain.

“I told them everything,” Aristide said. “I told them my whole story.”

For U.S. immigration officials, that story boiled down to one central fact: He had sought entry into the United States without proper documentation. He would now remain in detention, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said last week in a statement, “pending his removal to Haiti.”

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