For the Haitian diaspora, gang violence in their country is personal

Many of the more than a million who have left the Caribbean nation feel helpless when they call terrified relatives who cannot leave.

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TIJUANA, Mexico – When Vivianne Petit Frere fled her native Haiti for Brazil in 2019 and then trekked through the Panamanian jungle to Mexico, where she opened a restaurant, she always believed she would eventually return home. Until now.

As gang violence grips Haiti, many of the more than 1 million who have left the Caribbean nation feel helpless as they call terrified relatives who cannot leave because airports are closed and crossing to the United States by sea is too much. risky.

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“Before you could say that everything was fine. She knew things weren’t right, but she had faith, hope that one day it would change. We lost faith. There is no way forward because of the gangs,” said Petit Frere, 36, at a table at the restaurant she runs in downtown Tijuana with her husband, who also fled Haiti.

The escalation of unrest has had repercussions among those who left Haiti for Brazil, Chile, Mexico and the United States. As their hopes of returning home fade, decisions remain about how the United States responds to the turmoil in the country long plagued by political unrest, widespread poverty and natural disasters.

A devastating earthquake in 2010 sent many Haitians to Brazil and Chile. When Brazil’s economy collapsed in 2016, Haitians were one of the first nationalities to make the dangerous journey across the Darien Gap from Panama to the United States, some crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego and settling in the United States. with others who came before them, largely in Miami, New York and Boston.

The Haitian Bridge Alliance has been reaching out to immigrants in the United States and Canada and has discovered that many have family members caught up in the gang war, said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the advocacy group, whose childhood neighborhood in Port-au-Prince was devastated by the attacks. Her cousin was murdered by gangs last year.

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“It’s not something we’re reading in the news. It’s something that happened to my own family and that’s the reality for most people in the diaspora. You start hearing the realities of my cousin, my mom, my sister, my dad, and it becomes very personal,” Jozef said.

Standing on a corner in Miami’s “Little Haiti,” security guard Jude Guillalime said he talks often to his two children in Haiti, who recently spent two days without food or water. They ask if they can meet him in Florida. He tells them not to worry.

“Everything is bad, terrible,” said Guillalime, 47, a legal resident of the United States who requested his children come to Florida this year.

The United States is the top destination for Haitian immigrants, and President Joe Biden’s carrot-and-stick approach to immigration—promoting new and expanded legal pathways while discouraging illegal crossings—has largely worked as intended with the Haitians, despite critics of his unprecedented use of “parole authority to grant entry on humanitarian grounds.

About 151,000 Haitians arrived at a U.S. airport after applying online with a financial sponsor through February, an option also available to Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans.

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Illegal land crossings from Mexico by Haitians plummeted as more people entered two-year parole with work eligibility. Haitians accounted for just 0.02% of the 140,000 Border Patrol arrests in February.

The decline in illegal crossings has led to fewer deportation flights to Haiti, about one per month over the past year, according to Witness at the Border, an advocacy group that tracks flight data. That’s less than the daily flights immediately after a camp of 16,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, formed in the small Texas border town of Del Rio in 2021.

The administration also renewed and expanded Temporary Protected Status for about 150,000 Haitians under a law that allows people already in the United States to remain if conditions created by a natural disaster or civil conflict are deemed unsafe. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas must decide whether he will renew Temporary Protected Status before it expires this year.

Last week, the Coast Guard returned 65 refugees to Haiti after apprehending them near the Bahamas, and the Department of Homeland Security said it will continue its current policy of returning migrants intercepted at sea.

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“At this time, irregular migration flows through the Caribbean remain low,” the department said in a statement.

Tijuana was a stop for thousands of Haitians who arrived in 2016 to wait for then-President Barack Obama to grant them parole. Many bided their time in a squalid neighborhood, renamed “Little Haiti,” while working in car washes, restaurants and factories producing goods for export to the United States.

Since then, Haitians have spread throughout the city and gained legal status in Mexico, where Haitians are one of the largest nationalities seeking asylum and their children are Mexican citizens by birthright.

Petit Frere planned to live in the United States but met her husband during her second week in Tijuana. The couple had a child in Mexico, so all three were Mexican citizens.

“I came with my American dream, but Tijuana claimed me,” Petit Frere said with a laugh as cooks worked through a menu that includes polenta with black beans and fried fish with plantain. An evangelical Christian church two blocks away offers Sunday services in Creole, a sign of how Haitian culture has permeated the city.

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Many Haitians stay in Mexican border cities only for a short time, perhaps a night or two in hotels near a border crossing after getting a date on the CBP One online dating app that was introduced last year. The application is open to all nationalities, but the location software requires being in Mexico City or somewhere in the north to apply.

CBP One is issuing 1,450 entries per day dated two weeks in advance, including about 400 at the Tijuana border crossing. The vast majority of the roughly 100 migrants on date nights on a recent day were Haitians. They waited in a large plaza, some wearing baseball caps and sweatshirts with logos of the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Denver Broncos.

Jackson Cisrode, 26, had just spoken to his 4-year-old son who he left with his family in Haiti because he couldn’t pay for the trip. Last year he flew on one of the suspended charter flights from Haiti to Nicaragua, avoiding the Panamanian jungle and crossing Mexico, often walking.

Cisrode said he hoped to earn enough money in the United States to bring his son. He joined others in line when a Mexican immigrant agent emerged from a parking lot and shouted, “Are you all ready?”

They smiled as they carried suitcases with backpacks on their shoulders and showed their appointment documents as authorities directed them to a secure area for processing into the United States.

Associated Press writer Gisela Salomón in Miami contributed to this report.

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