The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Haitian migrants thought Biden would welcome them. Now deported to Haiti, they have one mission: Leave again.

Fegenson Elie on Sept. 27 at the boardinghouse where he and his family are staying in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Ralph Tedy Erol for The Washington Post)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — As Haitians living in Brazil, Fegenson Elie and his family were struggling when he received a phone call from his sister-in-law. She had recently joined thousands of migrants — including many families with children — who had successfully crossed the U.S. border.

Month by month, the Biden administration had been allowing an increasing number of Haitians to enter the country, which allowed them to make asylum claims, and expelling far fewer on pandemic-era public health grounds. Elie’s sister-in-law, taking advantage of the easing policy, was establishing a new life in Florida with her husband and child — and beckoning the Elies to follow.

“She told me people with children won’t have a problem, because it had been easy for them,” said Elie, 33.

He emptied the family’s life savings and joined the surge of Haitians migrating from the South American nations where many settled years ago. But after a dangerous odyssey to Texas — and as pressure mounted on the Biden administration over a burgeoning migrant camp near the border — Elie and his family were apprehended by U.S. agents and summarily deported to a country they had not seen in years.

“Biden called us,” Elie said. Then, “Biden betrayed us.”

Deportees land in Port-au-Prince: 'Nobody told us we were going back to Haiti'

Now bankrupt and desperate, the Elies are far worse off than when they started — scrambling to find a way out of their homeland, an unstable and dangerous country they had previously escaped and never wanted to return to.

On a recent afternoon, Elie stood at the gates to the Port-au-Prince airport, his 3-year- old son clinging to him, his wife nervously holding their 1-year old daughter. They wore their only possessions — the clothes they had landed in two days earlier after being forced onto a U.S. deportation flight.

Elie begged the guards to let them into the airport. Their bags, which held their IDs as well as their children’s Brazilian birth certificates, had been missing since their flight here. He needed to find them to have any hope of leaving again.

The sooner they can leave, he said, the better. The sound of gunfire outside their cheap boardinghouse makes their children cry. In a nation with the world’s highest per-capita kidnapping rate, rumors are rife that the deportees have bales of cash.

The airport guard shook his head: No entry.

“This country is hell,” Elie said back in the small, dingy room at the boardinghouse where the family has been staying. “We need to leave.”

The Biden administration continues to send thousands of Haitians back to the hemisphere’s poorest country to break up a surge in migration that some say it might unwittingly have fueled.

Interviews with nearly three dozen Haitian migrants in Haiti, Texas and Mexico indicated that virtually all expected to be granted entry to the United States. Rumors and incomplete information about asylum and relief, spurred at least in part by the administration’s inconsistent application of border policies, reached them through messaging apps, social media and phone calls.

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The Biden administration has used Title 42 — a public health policy embraced by the Trump administration during the coronavirus pandemic — to summarily expel the Haitians before they can file asylum claims. The expulsions are happening without systematic coronavirus testing; six deportees have tested positive for the coronavirus in Haiti, according to the International Organization for Migration.

But the deportations come after months in which the policy was unevenly applied. From January to August, as the number of migrants crossing the border climbed, the percentage ejected under Title 42 fell from 82 percent to 45 percent. For Haitians, the drop was steeper: 55 percent to 8 percent.

By July, a majority of migrants were being processed under Title 8, which allows them to request asylum. Although migrants processed under Title 8 may also face expedited deportation, most families with children were being released into the United States.

The numbers suggest the improving success rate for entering the United States might have encouraged more migration. During the first seven months of the Biden administration, from February through August, 92 percent of Haitian migrants — or 24,707 people — were processed in ways that granted them access to asylum claims. That compares with 44 percent — or 1,641 people — during the last seven months of the Trump administration, when the majority were rapidly expelled under Title 42.

The treatment of Haitians in recent months has been roughly on par with that of migrants from other, more distant countries, such as Brazil. But it contrasts sharply with, say, Mexican migrants — a far larger percentage of whom have been immediately expelled by the Biden administration.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for an explanation. Analysts attribute the disparity at least in part to the relative ease in returning Mexicans back to their home country.

The Biden administration’s decision to grant temporary protection to undocumented Haitians living in the United States might also have encouraged migration. The policy was announced in May and finalized in August. Eligibility was limited to migrants who had arrived in the country by July 29.

“I think when there is a confusing policy landscape at the border,” said Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, “when there are instances of people getting through despite the messaging coming out of the administration, and then those people pass on word through their social networks, then it can certainly create a draw for more migration at the border.”

What happens next in Haiti?

A White House official disputed claims that the administration’s policies were unclear or had encouraged migration.

“We’ve been clear from even before President Biden took office that migrants should not irregularly try to enter the United States, and those attempting to enter will be subject to border restrictions,” the official said in a statement to The Washington Post, commenting on the condition of anonymity under protocols set by the White House. “Currently, the administration continues to enforce Title 42 and expel people with this authority when possible, and those who cannot be expelled are placed into immigration proceedings. There are a number of operational capacity constraints in place that determine whether an individual is able to be expelled or not.”

Most of the Haitians massing at the U.S.-Mexico border had fled to South America after the 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 220,000 people. Many had settled in Chile or Brazil, countries where they say they faced obstacles to legalization, rising discrimination and a severe job-market downturn due to the pandemic.

It is clear that not all migrants who tried to enter the United States were successful. But interviews with Haitian migrants suggested that the number who succeeded was great enough to inspire an exodus.

“Why did this happen to us?” asked Marinise Cédieu Sinaus, 38, deported to Haiti this week with her husband and 3-year-old son. “Lots of people were getting into the U.S. without any problem whatsoever.” Her son, she said, had barely eaten during their five-day detention in Texas and required hospitalization in Haiti.

“My husband has a sister in the U.S. who would have received us,” she said. “I did not decide to come to Haiti. I do not have a house here. I don’t have anything here. I want to go back to Chile where I worked at a supermarket.”

Elen Pierre, 28, lived in Brazil and later Chile with his partner and daughter before getting stranded in Mexico while trying to come to the United States.

“You learn from the one who came before you, and they pass it on to the next person,” he said. “It could be a brother, a cousin or a friend. They tell you what to expect, what to avoid and where the police are on the journey. When they make it through, they tell you who will help and what to say. You expect to make it, too.”

“We were expecting the United States to accept us with open arms,” Pierre said. “That’s what we were told.”

Deportations have left thousands stranded in a country shattered by violence and rocked by political instability after an unsolved presidential assassination. An earthquake in August killed more than 2,200 people and left tens of thousands homeless.

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The converging crises have sparked a fresh wave of Haitian migration. Hundreds have departed by boat in recent weeks, only to be intercepted and turned back by U.S., Bahamian and other authorities. On Thursday, four U.N. agencies called on governments to refrain from expelling Haitian migrants “without proper assessment of their individual protection needs.”

“Our fear is that the [new deportees] will put themselves at high risk and try leave the same way they did the first time, using irregular routes, because right now it’s very difficult to get a visa for Chile or Brazil, and other countries are also restricting their policies for Haitians,” said Giuseppe Loprete, Haiti mission chief for the International Organization for Migration.

Many of the deportees remain determined to leave.

Elie, a former rice farmer in the northern city of Gonaïves, fled to Brazil in 2013 after bandits seized his crops. In Brazil, he worked construction and met his Haitian wife, Bencia Revangil, 27, also a migrant. By last year, as the pandemic caused Brazil’s economy to buckle, they had saved $1,200 and considered heading to the United States.

But they waited, Elie said, because “Donald Trump was in power.”

Then his wife’s sister told them in April that she and her husband and child had managed to cross into Texas, been processed by immigration officials and been allowed to travel on to Florida. The Elies borrowed money from Revangil’s father and set off a couple of weeks later, enduring a grueling trip by bus and foot through jungles and over rushing rivers, paying guides and smugglers the lion’s share of their savings. Along the trails, they were robbed of $300 and passed the bodies of dead migrants.

“But the worst thing done to us was in the U.S.,” he said.

“They did not treat us like human beings,” he said. “We spent five days in prison without taking a bath, without brushing our teeth. We were there looking for asylum, because we are Haitian. The deported us, illegally I would say. We were not given a chance.”

Elie and his wife say they were chained in front of their children for the deportation flight and not told where they were going. Revangil said she fainted on the plane, suspecting they were returning to Haiti.

Their bags lost with their documents, clothes and electronics, they borrowed a phone and called Revangil’s father, who lives outside the capital and called a friend to aid them. He found them a room in a boardinghouse in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood, where violent gangs are staging incursions. There’s no bed; the family sleeps at night on the room’s concrete floor.

The day after they arrived, an evangelical preacher was shot dead in front of a nearby church as kidnappers took his wife.

The family eventually returned to the airport and finally persuaded guards to let them in.

Elie found their bags. But their children’s Brazilian birth certificates — their best hope, they believed, for leaving the country by plane — were missing.

Nevertheless, Elie said, they would find a way to get out, even if it meant risking treacherous seas.

“We have nothing now, but we will try again to get back to the U.S.,” he said. “I prefer to die on the way than stay here.”

Faiola reported from Miami. Hernández reported from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.

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