The Haitians who built a community in Tijuana – but are still stranded

A Haitian family leaves after a Sunday mass in the suburbs of Tijuana, Mexico, in 2018. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

By Justo Robles, The Guardian, May 25, 2023

About six miles west from downtown Tijuana, on Mexico’s border with California, visitors can spot a billboard erected years ago that reads: “Little Haiti, City of God.”

The area was once the home of thousands of Haitian migrants stranded in this north-western Mexican city as they tried to defy the tightening of US immigration policies.

Though the population in Little Haiti has declined recently, its legacy remains among those left behind.

“It was the hands of 600 Haitians that built part of this school,” said Gustavo Banda, pastor of the Embajadores de Jesús, a church that expanded its capacity to house up to 2,000 Haitian migrants each day between 2016 and 2017.

The school, Banda added, is the first of its kind dedicated to migrant children inside a Tijuana shelter. At its inauguration in April, there were hundreds of children from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Neither the politicians nor the donors to this project acknowledged the Haitians who once lived and worked here.

For more than a decade, Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, has been plagued by devastating natural disasters, political instability and gang violence exacerbated by the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021.

The 21st-century exodus from Haiti began in earnest after the 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 220,000 people and left more than 1 million people homeless, prompting many of those who survived to flee for Latin America and the US.

Many went to Brazil, which welcomed Haitian workers in preparation for the 2014 World Cup.

But when Brazil’s economy suffered its worst slump in decades, Haitians started traveling north for months until they reached Tijuana, Mexico’s doorway to the American dream.

The US initially allowed Haitians to enter the country under the humanitarian parole provision, which gave them as long as three years to remain on American soil. But in September 2016, Barack Obama announced that those who showed up along the southern border would be deported back to crisis-stricken Haiti.

Obama’s decision previewed similar policies subsequent administrations would take to deter Haitian arrivals along the US-Mexico border.

“One common thing we have seen is the application of deterrence policies at the border,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an organization that provides legal services to displaced black people near the US-Mexico border since 2015.

“It has always been very difficult for Haitians to seek asylum because of US immigration policies, and as a result they started a vibrant community in Tijuana with barber shops and restaurants.”

Back in downtown Tijuana, Wikiel Caslot, 35, welcomed a family to Labadee, a restaurant he named in honor of a port on Haiti’s northern coast.

It’s been six years since Caslot left Brazil and journeyed to Tijuana. At the time, the Trump administration announced significant measures to dissuade people from seeking asylum, and Caslot gave up on his dream of reaching the US. He quickly adapted to the opportunities Tijuana offered.

“I worked in construction sites and factories until I saved enough money to open this place,” said Caslot, who later brought his wife and children from Haiti to Tijuana.

“If you stay here waiting and waiting to go to the US, you will grow old.”

According to Enrique Lucero, the director of Tijuana’s Office of Migrant Affairs, when Caslot arrived in Tijuana in 2016, the city had a network of six shelters which rapidly ran out of space due to the increasing number of stranded Haitians stranded in Mexico because of US policies.

Today there are between 4,000 and 6,000 Haitians living in Tijuana – the fourth largest migrant population in the city, after Mexicans, Central Americans and Venezuelans.

Under Title 42, a measure implemented during the coronavirus pandemic by Donald Trump and continued under Joe Biden until 11 May, US immigration officials have expelled migrants over 2m times – and more than 22,000 of them were Haitians.

When the Biden administration announced earlier this year that migrants hoping to apply for asylum needed to secure an appointment through a phone app known as CBP One, many Haitians left Tijuana’s shelters for hotels and room rentals in search of better internet service.

“Now we have CBP One, which, if we think about it, is just a digitized version of the ‘metering program’,” said Jozef, referring to the tactic that required some migrants, primarily Haitians to get a “ticket” from Mexican officials and wait in line to seek asylum in the US.

At the entrance of four-story hotel named Suite Jerez three men spoke Haitian Creole to each other. One of them, in despair, pointed at a woman and child who were lying on the ground under a blanket that didn’t fully cover them.

One of the bystanders, Joel Noel, said the man had been able to secure a CBP One appointment but didn’t have the 260 Mexican pesos needed to spend another night with his family in the fully booked hotel.

“Listen, our problem is that we don’t make enough money while we wait for appointments,” said Noel, who once studied industrial chemistry, and emigrated to Argentina after the 2010 earthquake. “I worked at a restaurant 12 hours a day and I made 400 pesos [about US$23] Monday to Friday.”

After years making and selling his own hygiene products in Buenos Aires province, Noel bought some land with the intention of building a home for himself.

But when a neighbor found out Noel had brought chickens so he could raise them in his backyard, the Argentinian man threatened to kill all of them.

“There are places in Argentina where, if you are a person of color, you can’t live in peace,” Noel said, referring to the racism he suffered during those years in Argentina, a country that has long taken pride in its European heritage.

Justiner Jocener,30, emigrated to Chile shortly after Hurricane Matthew killed more than 500 people in Haiti in 2016 – and experienced similar prejudice.

“I studied agronomy in my country, but in Chile, I had to work in anything I could to feed my daughter,” said Joecener. “I felt like I started getting rejected for jobs because of who I was.”

Eventually, he left Chile and migrated to Tijuana, where he was told by compatriots that he would have a higher chance of entering the US. But he still hasn’t been able to secure a CBP One appointment.

US Customs and Border Protection recently announced it would increase the number of CBP One appointments distributed each day from 740 to 1,000 starting on 12 May.

Since its implementation, over more than 83,000 individuals have scheduled an appointment, and Haitians are among the top nationalities, a DHS official told the Guardian.

According to Lucero, the director of Tijuana’s office of migrant affairs, at least 2,700 Haitians have secured appointments in the region.

For now, most of their compatriots in the city remain stranded, hoping that a new shift in US migration policy might eventually change their fate.

“Why wouldn’t the US want us?” asked Noel. “We want to go and work. Just that.”


Posted May 28, 2023