Haitians at the Border: Shifting Priorities

At the heart of a story emblematic of the bewildering confluence of rapidly evolving economic struggles and social identities occurring currently in the Americas is a group of migrants living in Tijuana, Baja California, near the Mexican-United States border. They have been grouped together as “afrodescendientes” by the Mexican press because of their black skin. Most of them began their journeys in Haiti. Little has been written about them in English-language North American publications. They arrived to Mexico with aspirations of reaching the United States. But that future now seems less desirous: Have we reached a tipping point for the “American dream” in the immigrant imaginary?

Over one-third of those held at California immigration detention centers in September 2016 hailed from outside of Latin America. Haiti is the most common country of origin for those from outside of Central and South America. Destruction caused by the 2010 earthquake centered near Port-au-Prince prompted many Haitians to leave the island nation. But those seeking refuge elsewhere found few countries willing to accept them. Many gained entry to Brazil only to be denied permanent asylum. The recent destruction caused by Hurricane Mathew in early October 2016 has prompted another wave of Haitians to leave their home country.

Trump’s administration has trumpeted statistics in recent days that showed a 40% drop in US border apprehension rates between January and February. It is too early to understand such numbers with nuance. But reports from the other side of the border do seem to indicate that the desire to reach the US, at least among the non-Central American populations who originally arrived to Mexico with only a short stay in mind, is waning.

Over 16,000 Haitian refugees have passed through Baja California in order to request asylum from the US since the wave of migration began following the 2010 earthquake. Approximately 4,000 Haitians are currently residing in Baja California. 65% of them are staying in privately-funded shelters. But as their host organizations are quickly running out of funds, it seems as though many of the Haitians are beginning to envision a more permanent life south of the Rio Grande.

During the past month over 300 Haitian citizens have filed petitions for legal residence with the Mexican government. An article this week reported on efforts by an evangelical church in Tijuana to build homes for over 200 Haitians that have sought assistance from the religious community. “Little Haiti”, as the church’s pastor has dubbed the group of new residences, is intended to allow families to live together on a permanent basis instead of continuing to reside in sex-segregated shelters.

To date, only 131 Haitian citizens have been granted residency by the Mexican government. Anticipating a growth in requests, interest groups within Mexico are mobilizing to pressure the federal government to not deport any individuals back to Haiti. There have also been appeals made to provincial and municipal authorities to increase funding to allow access to adequate lodging and food for those passing through as well as those electing to stay in Mexico.

The apparent drop in migration rates alongside the increasingly demonstrated preference of Haitians to remain in Mexico points to an apparent shift in international refugee views of the US. Trump’s migration bans have led to much outcry against the US from Middle Eastern countries. Yet it seems as though this souring of desires also extends to other corners of the globe. It remains unclear how much of the migration shift is due to the recent increase in speed in US officials deporting refugees to Haiti and how much is linked to shifting perceptions. The latter category, however, should not be discounted.

The stereotyped image of an “illegal immigrant” is a male from Mexico or Central America. This new wave of economic refugees pokes at such assumptions. Instead, it makes clear that economic refugees from various areas seek to come to our country via land. Indeed, Mexico in recent years has also witnessed the passage of refugees from as far away as Nepal. As a North American populace, it is imperative that we reshape our dialogue on Trump’s wall to acknowledge the wide swaths of people it would affect.

This is all the more reason while the US-Mexican relationship should be strengthened, not torn down. Mexican officials should be admired for their thus-far largely benevolent treatment of the non-citizens who have reached Baja California and other border states. Migrant shelters, by and large the result of private citizens’ initiative, are under-recognized in the crucial role they play in ensuring basic human dignity to those on the move.

But more must be done. Aid funding, from US NGOS and, where possible, state sources would be a start. As concerned witnesses, it is also incumbent upon us to shape our language so as to give voice to the many nationalities that are trapped not only overseas but also living near our land borders. The multitude of anti-immigrant policies emerging at the federal level is nauseating. The fight, however, is not lost.

If faced with a reality in which US deportations spike and those seeking to cross the border drops, we must still remember that human movement is a global phenomena. Economic stress is not eradicated but rather relocated. The Haitians and other nationalities weighing the prospects of possible rejection from the US alongside the possibility of a stable, albeit in areas experiencing high levels of violence, life in Mexico symbolize the larger tradeoffs which each individual pushed or pulled to leave his or her home faces.

Concentrating on US immigration rates risks ignoring the more complex story. Those in the Americas as well as overseas must confront many factors as they seek a better life. It is not a coincidence that the Trump administration’s rhetoric scrutinizes  in the same breathall forms of migration from all areas. Activists would do well to the same. Links between interest groups must be forged and a more united front presented.