Natasha Joseph’s almond-shaped eyes brim with tears as she cradles her pregnant belly and recounts the horror of her journey to the United States. There were the dust-choked buses, the corrupt cops, and the thieving coyotes. Some stretches of Central America were so perilous that walking in the dead of night was the only option.
But after four months of brutal risk, the worst came at the Arizona border, which the 31-year-old crossed in early September. That's where her husband John was later detained. He’s still behind bars with little hope he’ll witness the birth of his child.
“When I ask him when I’ll see him again,” says Joseph, speaking in hushed Kreyol, “he just sounds resigned that he will be there for a long time.”
Thousands of South Florida families are living similarly devastating stories today thanks to a little-noticed move by the Obama administration. This past September 22, just weeks before the election, Homeland Security abruptly ramped up deportation of Haitians for the first time since the island's massive 2010 earthquake. No longer can new arrivals stay for up to three years on humanitarian parole — instead, they’re being jailed and fast-tracked for a return to the island.
The results have been shocking: In all, 4,681 Haitian migrants are being detained across the United States, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Immigration facilities have been so overrun that hundreds of immigrants have been moved to criminal jails, in violation of international norms. Meanwhile, conditions in Haiti are the worst since the earthquake. The south is still in shambles after Hurricane Matthew, and violent postelection unrest is rocking Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien.
“You look at what’s going on in Haiti right now, and it’s very, very bad,” says Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami. “Obama still has the moral authority to stop these deportations and free these Haitians who are refugees from a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Many in Little Haiti pin their hopes on a last-minute White House reprieve from President Barack Obama before he turns over power to Donald Trump, who will almost certainly make life more difficult for poor migrants. But Haitians shouldn’t hold their breath, says Ediberto Román, a law professor at Florida International University who studies immigration trends: “Extending humanitarian relief to these people seems very unlikely when [Obama] did the exact opposite just a couple of months ago.”
Despite Haiti’s long history of turbulent politics and natural disaster, mass migrations to the United States are a recent phenomenon. As recently as 1960, only 5,000 Haitians lived in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
Haitians began fleeing to America in earnest after the brutal Duvalier era ended with Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier's 1986 ouster. Their numbers exploded five years later when the country’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was deposed in a coup. Tens of thousands fled the chaos, and more than 30,000 were eventually held in battered tents surrounded by barbed wire at the U.S. Naval station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In the decades since, thousands have moved to Miami-Dade and Broward, helping to reshape the region in Caribbean enclaves such as Little Haiti and North Miami. Numbers picked up again after 2010’s earthquake leveled most of Port-au-Prince and forced the United States to loosen immigration rules. The U.S. Haitian population has tripled since 1990, growing from 200,000 to more than 600,000 in the 2012, according to U.S. Census data.
But this year, a whirlwind of misfortunes has coalesced into the worst migration crisis since 1991. The exodus began in the spring, well before Matthew raked Haiti with 150 mph winds. The root cause was Brazil’s misery; thousands of Haitians had immigrated to the South American giant to take advantage of an economic boom that began under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. When Brazil’s economy suddenly cratered, those Haitians were left stranded and desperate. Thousands began paying coyotes for the long and treacherous overland route to the U.S.-Mexican border.
That’s exactly what happened to Natasha Joseph and her husband John. Both are from Croix-des-Bouquets, an area of 80,000 on the eastern edge of Port-au-Prince. The 2010 earthquake largely spared the area, but thousands from neighboring regions soon flooded in and set up tent cities. Word spread that jobs were to be had in Brazil, so Joseph and her partner traveled there late last year.
But Brazil was not what they’d been promised. By midsummer, economists were predicting that nation’s economy would shrink by nearly 4 percent, spurred by political unrest and falling commodity prices. Haitians were suddenly unwelcome.
“Each time we went to look for work, no one would help us,” Joseph says. “They asked us to come back and come back until we realized it was a question of discrimination. They just didn’t want to help us. We went to Brazil to see if things could be better, but when we got there, we realized things were much worse.”
Returning to Haiti, though, was not an option. In late spring, Joseph and her husband headed for America, traveling by bus and foot through ten countries, from Peru to Panama to Nicaragua and finally into Mexico. The trip was harrowing.
“We went through countries where people were very aggressive, very abusive,” she says. “In some, they wanted to hurt you more than help you. It was full of risk. But this trip was a matter of life or death for us.”
They were lucky. By early September, they’d made it to the border, along with hundreds of other immigrants — so many that Mexican authorities sorted them into groups, with women and children receiving preference. Joseph crossed into America, and like most Haitians since the earthquake, was released as a humanitarian refugee.
John spent weeks waiting his turn. But then it was too late. Homeland Security suddenly changed the rules. Jeh Johnson, the department’s chief, approved the shift because life in Haiti had improved since the earthquake. “Since that time, the situation in Haiti has improved sufficiently to permit the U.S. government to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis,” Johnson said.
His decision left activists and migrants baffled. Haiti’s economy was still in ruins, with a cholera epidemic barely contained and tens of thousands still homeless. Just two weeks after Johnson’s announcement of the policy change, his words looked even more insane.
On October 4, Category 5 Matthew swept through Haiti, killing more than 1,600 and causing billions of dollars in damage. Then, in late November, banana farmer Jovenel Moïse was elected president after a long-delayed and disputed vote; riots and gun battles have raged in Port-au-Prince and other cities since then.
As Natasha Joseph made her way to Miami, where she's since found refuge with relatives, she wondered, How could the government possibly claim Haiti was stable enough to force John to return there, especially after surviving such a terrible journey from Brazil?
She’s far from alone in asking that question. On a recent weeknight, she and a half-dozen others with relatives stuck in ICE detention gathered in Bastien’s Little Haiti office. Several cried as they asked why Obama had turned his back on their struggles.
“Obama is a human being — he has to have the conscience to do something for them,” says Esther Magene, whose niece has been held in a California detention center for several months after traveling to the United States from Brazil.
Magene weeps while describing her niece’s pain: By the time she made it to America, the girl's face was battered and her feet shredded from walking through forests and deserts. She suffers from PTSD while awaiting likely deportation to Haiti. “She cries every day. She won’t eat because she’s depressed,” Magene says. “She went through too much to get here.”
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Bastien and other activists have been lobbying for a miracle. The Haitian leader recently met with U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat, who joined 57 other legislators from both sides of the aisle in a letter urging Obama to reconsider the deportation order.
"Haiti has made little progress in its efforts to recover from the 2010 earthquake, a task made even more difficult by Hurricane Matthew,” Wilson says in a statement. "These deportations would send thousands of law-abiding Haitians who have been able to rebuild their lives here in America to a dismal fate. Most will be returning to nothing: no homes, no jobs, no futures."
That’s exactly what Natasha Joseph says her husband would face back in Croix-des-Bouquets, while she’d have to raise her child without a father. She still hopes Obama might consider the human cost of the increased deportations before he moves out of the White House.
“I would ask him to allow us to stay,” she says. “After all we’ve been through, I think that would be fair.”