'They are forcing us to go'

For weeks, the messages from our Haitian friend in Brazil had grown increasingly dire. “Yes, we are still planning on going on the road. We’ll leave next month, God willing,” she told us in early September. Her whole family was ready to make the long journey to the United States—she, her husband, and their two young children, ages 10 and 3. “We are being forced to go,” she explained. “We have to go look for life on another side. We have to function, we have to eat, we have to drink, we have to do things for a house too. You understand?”

We did and we didn’t. Like many of the Haitians who had already embarked on the long road, our friends (who asked not to be identified) had already been displaced at least once—part of a wave of Haitians who moved to Brazil in search of jobs and housing in the years after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. The jobs turned out to be fewer and poorer paying than they had hoped. Some fled the rising xenophobia stoked by Brazil’s neofascist president Jair Bolsonaro to Chile. Then the pandemic came, the dangers grew, and opportunities became more scarce.

But the “road”—lari a in Haitian Kreyòl—is no vacation. After traveling thousands of miles from wherever they are in South America to the border between Colombia and Panama, migrants must find a way across or around the Darién Gap—a nigh-impenetrable, 125-mile plug of jungle controlled by narcotraffickers and human smugglers, through which there are no roads. Get through there, and the rest of the 3,000-mile journey awaits, through restive Nicaragua and gang-ruled zones of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, before crossing into Mexico. Any migrants passing through there are vulnerable and exposed—a target for criminals, ultranationalists, and vindictive border guards. The dangers are even greater for those who, like most Haitians, speak no Spanish, and whose skin marks them in the eyes of lighter-skinned racists in many countries as disease-carrying, dangerous outsiders.

Our friend would not be dissuaded. “God will help us. God will hide us,” she said.

For weeks we shared information about both the dangers of the journey and the futility surely waiting for them at its end: stories of Haitian immigrants stuck in the border cities of Tijuana and Juárez. U.S. policy, we warned, was schizophrenic. At first, the Biden administration had been fighting (and apparently proved unable to control) the unhinged bureaucratic border-security superstructure left by Stephen Miller and Donald Trump. Then the White House changed course and took the lead on deporting Haitians, dumping thousands into Port-au-Prince on private flights owned by a Trump super-donor—even as it officially found to be Haiti unstable enough to allow thousands more who had come just a few weeks before to stay, citing the instability of Haitian politics following the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. A pause in deportation flights after the Aug. 14 earthquake, which killed 2,200 people, apparently lasted a month.

It was impossible to predict which direction the winds would be blowing if they reached the border.

The answer, for the moment, is back toward Haiti. Over the weekend, images of Haitians crossing the Rio Grande across a dam near Del Rio, Texas, sparked a political and media feeding frenzy. It was perhaps inevitable that such images would, once they were noticed: the juxtaposition of white America’s most feared skin color and the Rio Grande—the primary “blood meridian,” as Greg Grandin has called the U.S.-Mexico border, “a place where all of history’s wars become one war”—was bound to provoke something visceral in the national body politic. Panicking officials have compounded the problem even more, producing images of Border Patrol agents on horseback, trying to corral (and possibly whip) Haitians crossing the river on foot, which remind viewers of some of the most traumatic moments in U.S. history.

Now the political backlashes have begun. The Biden administration seems poised for what my former employers at the Associated Press are calling “a massive show of force”— “what could be one of America’s swiftest, large-scale expulsions of migrants or refugees in decades.” The administration will be buffeted by its nativist critics—for whom any action short of outright ethnic cleansing will never be enough—and by the left, which is already mobilizing to (rightly) liken the administration’s proposed response to some of the worst anti-immigrant policies of the Trump years. The deportation wave also promises to further roil politics in Haiti—the country our friends left years ago, where politics could scarcely have been more thoroughly roiled before.

For our friends in Brazil, the images from Del Rio accomplished what we could not. The family has abandoned its plans for the journey. “We are going to take some time to reflect,” she told us today, dejected. It is not that the family’s situation in Brazil has improved. Their lives there are still untenable. Returning to Haiti, especially now that a flood of deportees awaits, seems even more hopeless. And now, the United States—a country that has done so much to immiserate her homeland, yet that she hoped might give her family sanctuary and a chance at a better life—has dramatically closed the door. “We are going to have to find another vision.”

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Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire (coming in January; preorder now). On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.