After gang members burned down a relative’s home in 2018, Jerry, 33, fled the danger of his native Haiti and has been trying to reach a stable life in the United States ever since.
He lived in Chile until he left this summer, riding buses with his wife, Admoline, 25, and their 2-year-old daughter, Amandjie, along the well-worn roads that wind through Bolivia and Peru. They hiked the Darién Gap, a remote strip of jungle and treacherous streams that connects Colombia and Panama.
On foot or by bus they continued northward through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico — all the way to the edge of Texas, where, after they turned themselves in to US immigration agents, they waited and slept alongside other migrants, without blankets or shelter, under an old bridge spanning the border.
“It was difficult, traumatic,” Jerry said of the saga that eventually led him and his family to a friend’s home in Mattapan. He asked that only their first names be used for fear of US immigration authorities.
And yet, their journey isn’t over.
They are among 600 Haitian families who have arrived in Massachusetts since March as political, economic, and social conditions in Haiti have continued to deteriorate. The humanitarian crisis has been acutely felt in the state, home to roughly 46,000 Haitians and Haitian Americans, many concentrated in the Boston area — the third-largest Haitian diaspora population in the country behind Brooklyn, N.Y., and Miami.
Immigrant advocacy groups are scrambling to provide food, clothes, housing, and medical and legal services. In a US immigration system that tends to string people along with precarious lifelines, they say, newly arrived Haitians are among the most vulnerable, as families have minimal chances of pleading their cases and are often pushed out of the country, through deportation, or leave out of desperation.
Jerry said all he wants is a fighting chance to stay.
At the border, in Del Rio, Texas, he remembers encountering a row of US border agents after days of traveling with other migrants through brush and rocky, desert land, as winds kicked up the dust around them and parched their lips. Still, he and his wife consider themselves the lucky ones: Their family was able to make it into the United States when so many others have been forced to board flights bound for Haiti and the chaos they fled years ago.
“We want to improve the quality of our lives — go to school, find employment, be able to care for ourselves and our families,” Jerry said.
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The Immigrant Family Services Institute, a modest set of offices tucked in between discount stores and restaurants on bustling Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, has become one of the centers for relief for Haitians newly arrived in Boston.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the affable and energetic Rev. Dieufort Fleurissaint greeted staffers there with a fist bump. Volunteers and patrons shared pizza on fold-out tables and sorted through donations: stacks of furniture, diapers, car seats, mounds of clothes, shoes, and toys that have turned the institute’s basement into a makeshift warehouse.
“We are thankful people are so generous,” said Fleurissaint, president and executive director of the True Alliance Center, one of several immigrant advocacy nonprofits working with the institute to house and provide services for Haitian immigrants. But he likened the recent families arriving in Massachusetts to people without a nation.
In interviews with nearly a dozen Haitian immigrants who crossed the border in Del Rio, they described having to undertake dangerous treks through Latin America after Chile and Brazil began cracking down on unauthorized immigrants. The Globe is only using their first names to protect the families’ identities.
Returning to Haiti is not an option, said parents, several of whom escaped death threats. The country has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and mired in gang violence and civilian kidnappings. Political turmoil and economic fallout have only worsened since Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July, and a powerful earthquake shook much of the country a month later.
But for those who made it to the United States, staying here also presents its challenges.
Many are now residing with friends or family members, sleeping on floors and couches, sometimes six or seven to a home, as they wait out immigration cases without authorization to work and contribute to household expenses. Few have lawyers to help them navigate what immigrant advocates and attorneys describe as a confusing and arbitrary intake process.
The Haitian refugee and migrant crisis has been one of the major immigration challenges for the Biden administration, which has grappled with how to quickly process people arriving at the southwestern border. The administration faces calls for investigations into migrants’ treatment and Republican efforts to exploit the situation to stir fears of immigrants.
Biden began his term pledging to reverse the hardline immigration approach under his predecessor, and deportations of Haitians temporarily dropped as federal officials began to unwind a Trump-era program that required asylum-seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico.
In May, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reinstated temporary protections for Haitians that allow them to live and work in the United States for up to two years at a time. It was another reversal of Trump-era policy and was expected to cover more than 100,000 immigrants. But the move was marked by delays, as an estimated 15,000 Haitians arrived in Del Rio over the summer, and federal officials once more began to aggressively remove people from the country.
Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley and other members of the House Haiti Caucus since July have been calling on the Biden administration to halt all deportations of Haitian migrants and to reinstate a lapsed program to reunite Haitian families amid visa-processing backlogs. Daniel Foote, US special envoy to Haiti, grew so frustrated with the expulsions that he resigned in September, saying he refused to be associated with an “inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees.”
For Haitians already here, the paths to legal immigration status are limited. Only those who entered the country before July 29 are eligible for temporary protections. Federal immigration officials have temporarily admitted others on humanitarian causes. Yet, the status of many Haitians remains so unclear that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker in November wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra seeking federal guidance for those given limited or vague immigration documentation, disqualifying them from federal and state aid.
House Democrats also have included $8 million in funding for Haitian resettlement in Biden’s social spending and climate bill, which is awaiting approval in the Senate.
But some congressional Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups were dismayed this month when, under a federal court order, the Biden administration relaunched an expanded version of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program that will keep Haitians stranded on the other side of the border. It also has continued to use an old public health rule to speedily expel asylum-seekers.
Biden’s advisers see the aggressive measures as necessary to deter migrants from coming. The latest Customs and Border Protection data show a 90 percent drop in the number of Haitians apprehended at the Mexico border, from more than 17,600 people in September to only about 1,000 in October.
But in a statement, Pressley sharply criticized the administration for failing to reverse harmful Trump policies and end what she called the “xenophobic and racist weaponization” of the public health rule, which she said “flies in the face of the promises made to center the dignity and humanity of our immigrant neighbors and asylum seekers within our immigration system.”
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Migrant advocacy groups in Boston could see the humanitarian emergency coming to Massachusetts as Haitian and Central American migrants began to arrive at the border this spring.
The state first became a harbor for students and entrepreneurs who fled Haiti between 1950 and 1970. Most had seen the United States as only a temporary destination. But a brutal dictatorship from 1957 to 1986 kept almost all from going back. The earliest defining scenes of flight from the Caribbean nation became Haitians attempting to sail for Florida. The latest have been of people braving marshlands and deserts.
The most harrowing part of the journey, families said, was the stretch from Panama to Colombia, where bodies littered the mud, traffickers raped women, and migrants feared armed thieves as much as poisonous snakes. There, Ester, 27, and her husband, James, 29, said they were robbed and James was shot, causing a wound that became so infected doctors had to amputate his leg.
“He was in so much pain,” Ester recalled. He arrived in Del Rio on crutches.
The couple slept under the bridge for two days before immigration agencies processed them.
Daniel, his wife, and their 1-year-old son slept under the bridge for three days. His family was still in detention when US border agents on horseback sparked national outrage after photos and videos surfaced of them using their reins to lash at migrants. Etienne, 30, saw it with his own eyes, he said. Until then, families stuck waiting under the Del Rio bridge had occasionally been trudging back across the river to Mexico to buy food as more people filled the camp.
Etienne said he heard agents telling people not to attempt the roundtrip, an order with which he complied. But he understood why so many others did not: People were starving. Their children wanted more than the daily allotment of bread and apples they received from immigration officials.
“It was out of desperation,” Etienne said.
The latest generation of migrants — a young and highly skilled one — has a fire inside sparked by the trauma they have survived, said Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute. “They have a ‘fight’ mentality because they believe there is no way for them to go back,” she said.
Destin, 28, who arrived in Boston in November, said there is really only one way to describe the people who make it to the United States — as heroes. “It is really hard, people die,” he said, “and that’s why we should be treated with empathy, compassion, and more consideration to our humanity. ... At least give us the chance to work.”