A desperate and dehydrated Berline Monelus was deep in the swampy, snake-infested jungle after eight days of walking when the skies opened up. Her boyfriend was moving quickly, carrying their 1-year-old daughter, Thaina, while Monelus lagged behind, losing sight of them.
She reached a river crossing.
“I didn’t know which way go to,” she said. She stood with her 3-year-old son in the rain-soaked wildness bordering Panama and Colombia and began to cry.
As she stared into the rushing waters, another migrant on the same northern path walked up and volunteered to ferry the boy across on his back. Monelus, 24, handed the child over, instructing Jhonslay Joseph, Jr., to hold on tight. It was the last time she saw him.
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His last words still ring in her ears. “All I heard was Mamãe, Mamãe,” — Portuguese for “Mama” — she said, as the river’s deceptively strong currents loosened his tiny grip, sweeping him off the stranger’s back and swallowing him whole.
She nearly drowned, too, but another traveler pulled her to safety. For two days, she refused to leave, searching the river’s edge for her son. She found another body, but it wasn’t Jhonslay. After the second day, members of the group who had stayed to console her forced her to keep moving.
“I didn’t know the route had this kind of risk,” Monelus said, holding back tears as she sat in a Mexican hotel room not far from the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, two days before her appointment with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Had I known, I never would have taken it.”
After decades of crossing the Florida straits on a 700-mile trip in rickety boats to flee poverty and political turmoil, Haitians have carved out a new route to get to the United States. It’s a staggering 7,000-mile journey that starts in Brazil — which opened its doors to Haitians after the devastating 2010 earthquake — and cuts through South and Central America, traversing 11 countries and costing thousands of dollars a head in fees to people smugglers — coyotes in Spanish, passeurs in French — to find the way across closed borders.
In recent months, an increasing number of Haitians have been attempting the trek — by mini-van and bus, in overcrowded canoes and on foot — desperate to get to the U.S. border. Mostly young and despairing over the lack of progress in Haiti, they are looking north for hope, joining thousands of violence-fleeing Hondurans and Salvadorans, asylum-seeking Cubans and undocumented migrants from Congo, Mali and as far away as Nepal along a circuitous route to San Diego, California.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana told Congress Thursday that 40,000 Haitians are in transit. So far, nearly 5,000 have made it, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said.
Those who reach the San Ysidro Port of Entry a few miles from downtown San Diego wind up in immigration detention centers first and then — until Thursday’s shift in U.S. Haiti deportation policy — are usually paroled into the country with temporary papers. Even so, they prefer the uncertainty of life in the United States to anything in Haiti or Brazil.
“The document you have states that at any time, any decision can be taken,” said Ones Alcenat who, like most of the arriving Haitians, headed to Florida after spending five days in immigration lockup and another 15 at a San Diego-area church, Christ United Methodist & Ministry Church in Normal Heights. “Being on American soil is a dream for everyone.”
The unprecedented flow of Haitians across the California border can be traced back to late May, when migrant advocates in Tijuana were summoned by Mexican authorities to help with the startling number of arrivals from the Caribbean island. At the same time, other countries along the path were awakening to the new migration pattern.
Panama, which had allowed safe passage to migrants, in May blocked its border crossing at the Darién Gap, where Monelus lost her son. The unforgiving, mountainous section of jungle is home to Colombian FARC rebels, drug traffickers, indigenous Indians and poisonous snakes.
The closure left thousands of migrants, including many Haitians, stranded in Turbo, Colombia, where migrants usually boarded boats to get through the difficult stretch. Last month, Panama reopened the passage.
But those who get through face another hurdle: the border of Costa Rica with Nicaragua. That’s where a penniless Rodlen Jean-Baptiste has spent the last six months. He’s tried five times to cross Nicaragua to reach Honduras and eventually Tijuana — without success.
“Life is like that,” said Jean-Baptiste, 26, bitter at his circumstance but grateful he’s still alive. “There are people who died on the route and I haven’t.”
Each time he’s been sent back, he returns to the same refugee camp in Peñas Blancas near the northern border of Costa Rica with “thousands of people, not just Haitians.”
But Thursday’s decision by the U.S. government to re-start deportations of Haitians — a practice that had been suspended since the 2010 earthquake — is making him rethink his plan to have his father send him money to try again.
“If I could go back to Haiti from here, I would. When I was in Haiti, I didn’t suffer this kind of misery,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I am not interested in going back to Brazil. I was there and it didn’t benefit me.”
Jean-Baptiste is part of what the leaders of Panama and Costa Rica are calling “a migration crisis” and others characterize as an example of shifting global migration patterns. The dangerous exodus that has swept Europe with migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy is a now a new reality in South and Central America, they say.
The trip through the Americas is a treacherous one. Migrants can spend anywhere from four to 20 days walking through the dense jungle, where Monelus says she spent more than a week without food because her provisions ran out.
More than two dozen migrants interviewed by the Miami Herald in Tijuana, San Diego and Miami say they employ both high- and low-tech skills to find their way across borders, over mountains and past state security forces. Social media, including Facebook and the WhatsApp messaging system, help them find information from others who have gone ahead. But the most basic systems work, too: Remnants of clothing tied to trees along the way help them locate the trail in the wilderness.
They also admit to hiring the smugglers who stalk jails, refugee camps and border crossings. They promise safe passage for a negotiable but hefty fee. The trip can last two to four months and end up costing anywhere from $2,500 to $13,000, depending on negotiating skills, migrants said.
Monelus, who spent four months to reach Mexico, says she lost a total of $2,350 from three failed attempts to cross Nicaragua. On the fourth, she hired a smuggler for $1,000. He got her to Honduras on foot and then on horseback. Monelus’ mother paid for both trips, the first to Brazil five years ago and the most recent one to get to California, by selling a plot of land and a family store, Monelus said.
When she finally made it out of the jungle and into Panama City, Monelus called home. She told her parents what happened to her son. They cried. They had never met the boy.
“I didn’t feel I had the strength to go on,” she said, but they urged her. “My father said to continue on. Returning to Haiti wouldn’t be good for me.”
Haiti’s economy has been in a sharp decline since 2014. The World Bank is predicting economic growth to be at less than 1 percent this year, citing lower investments, the uncertain political environment and struggling agriculture sector after a severe drought.
Foreign aid has plummeted, too, from more than $2 billion in 2011 to barely $250 million this year. The domestic currency also has taken a hit, and the country’s public debt has swelled. Foreign investments have dropped to about $100 million for each of the last four years.
Facing this dismal reality, Haitian families on the island are bankrolling the aspirations of those brave enough to try their luck in other countries. They take out loans at exorbitant rates, put homes up as collateral and sell land and livestock. They see the money as an investment like a college education, hoping it will pay dividends one day.
They wire funds when migrants get stuck. Because Haitians have learned to ditch their passports and assume Congolese identities — on the theory that it will be more difficult to deport them — migrants often have to rely on a trafficker or someone else to receive the money on their behalf. Those middle men often charge a 10 to 20 percent service fee.
Those who carry cash hide it in the leg hems of jeans, the seam of a backpack or the flap of a tennis shoe. Still, migrants tell harrowing stories of women being strip-searched and even raped, of phones ripped from their hands and thousands of dollars lost to robbers in cahoots with smugglers or bribe-seeking police officers along the route.
“I wouldn’t wish this route on anybody because it is really dangerous. It’s not easy. A lot of people have lost their lives,” said Monelus, who spent 13 days in a Mexican jail after she crossed its southern border with Guatemala. “We left Brazil and we were four. Now we are three. This really makes me sad. I really regret taking the trip. ”
For most, the journey begins in Brazil, once a rising Latin American power that gave Haitians special residency after the earthquake but now a country in recession.
“Every day, Haitians are leaving,” said Joanes Decembre, a father of five who moved to Brazil in 2013 and sent for his wife 11 months later.
Decembre, 39, had hoped to make a life in Brazil, and even helped form an association on behalf of Haitians in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil. But then the economy tanked. Work became harder to find and paid a lot less.
His breaking point came when one of his daughters called. “She needed $100 for school. I didn’t have it. I was working and I didn’t have it.”
Decembre decided to make his way north. He raised the money by taking a loan against his house in Haiti, selling livestock and collecting unemployment from his job. He told his Brazilian landlord that he had a family emergency back in Haiti, a lie he’s not particularly proud of. The man, a bus driver, offered to take him to the border. There were 11 other Haitians on the bus with him, all trying to leave.
Decembre’s troubles began quickly. In Ecuador, he was threatened with deportation after authorities refused to recognized a transit document he bought for $20 in Peru. In the jungle, he got lost, crossing “what looked like the same river must be 1,000 times.”
He was in a group of 50 who decided to make their way north without paying indigenous tribes along the way. Eventually, they noticed the tied-on clothing markers to guide them during five days walking through the Darién Gap.
But it took mental toughness and, sometimes, physical strength. When his wife, Ginette Victor, told him she couldn’t go on, he wouldn’t let her give up. “She was in front and I was behind pushing her. At one point, I put her on my back to get through a river.”
Misery, arrival or death
The jungle is test of will for migrants, a place where Haitians on the journey have witnessed both kindness and selfishness. Those unable to keep up — often young mothers like Monelus — sometimes are left behind. Others times, unity is strength.
During Decembre’s trip, the group reached a mountain crossing but Victor, his wife, was too dehydrated to keep walking. A father carrying an infant pulled out a baby bottle, added powdered milk and water from his supply, mixed it and gave her and nine others a drop.
“It was a huge gesture,” Victor said, “as if it had come directly from God. I feared I was going to die from thirst.”
The man and his child have yet to reach the end of the journey, Victor said. They remain stuck on the border of Costa Rica, broke.
The couple eventually made it through Nicaragua in the back of a cement truck, paying $1,800 to be dropped off at Honduras’ border. Decembre showed photos on his cell phone of himself and Victor, dirty and sweating inside the sweltering vehicle.
“There are only three options when you take this route,” he said, “Misery, arrival or death.”
In Honduras, Decembre’s funds finally ran out. There were no more loans from family members. He called Haiti and sold the last of his animals.
“Even now, I am not even sure if my kids will be able to enroll in school,” he said last month, shortly after arriving in San Diego, yearning to take his first bath in days. “We spent all of the money.”
Governments throughout the regions have denied that their police officers are extorting money from the vulnerable travelers, instead saying gangs are passing themselves off as officers.
Doris Meissner, a former Immigration and Naturalization Services commissioner and current fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said migrants’ experiences with shakedowns along the route is “a classic problem of weak law enforcement, justice systems and the corruption laced throughout the systems.”
But governments may be part of the problem. Some, like Costa Rica and Mexico, provide transit documents but complain that the migrants are using their countries as transit points. The countries rationalize, Meissner said, that the migrants, “all want to get to the United States so why should we be spending our money?”
“You have a lot of contradictory policies,” she said. “All of these things are characteristics of why there has to be a much more collective, concerted approach with a lot more cooperation, collaboration in the region.... Issues of migration are no longer just a U.S.-Mexico phenomenon.”
In Costa Rica, the decision to provide migrants with food and healthcare has angered the surrounding population. Earlier this year, thousands of undocumented Cuban migrants had to be airlift out of the Central American nation to El Salvador and Mexico after 7,800 of them became stranded from November 2015 to March.
“Our communities... are a bit tired after what happened with the Cubans who stayed here for about five months,” Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González told McClatchy last month.
Costa Rica President Luis Guillermo Solís said the overwhelming majority of those crossing his territory lately have been Haitians. Initially, he said, Costa Rican officials thought they were West Africans since many of them went by the same name: Muhammad Ali.
“We realized the French they spoke was not western African French. It was Creole,” Solis said. “And then we realized most of them were coming from Haiti.”
Haiti’s leaders say they are well aware of the frustrations of regional leaders over the influx of Haitians moving through their territories. The number of Haitians in Ecuador has gone from 2,600 to 40,000, for example, said Haiti’s foreign minister, Pierrot Délienne. In Chile, there are more than 60,000 and in Brazil, 95,000.
Last month, during an interview in his Port-au-Prince office, Délienne said French Guiana was preparing to deport 2,800 Haitians. Weeks later, Suriname, similarly flooded with Haitians, began requiring visas.
Changing visa rules isn’t the solution, said Délienne. His ministry has launched a campaign on radio and television and local churches telling Haitians: “Home is better.”
“We have to block these trips at the source, which is here,” he said. “We’ve become a migrating people because there is no stability, no work in the country. The country has no economy. If the economy is working , people will find work.”
Most Haitians arriving in the U.S. are between 18 and 40, a lost generation with no hope for Haiti.
Monelus still had two years of high school when she left for Brazil in search of a better life. Her work assembling chairs in a Brazilian factory paid her the equivalent of $260 a month, barely enough for rent. She didn’t get a chance to “even send a cent to Haiti,” she said. Like others along the route, she spent more time in Brazil looking for work than she did working.
Wilguer Jean-Baptiste, 24, arrived in São Paulo last year after applying for a visa at the Brazilian Embassy in Port-au-Prince. As he stood in line in Tijuana on a hot August morning for an appointment with U.S. border authorities, he started calculating how much the risky voyage had cost. He estimated $5,000 — money he said his parents borrowed at loan-shark rates.
“It’s a huge burden,” he said. “I know that if I were sent back to Haiti, there is no way I would be able to repay the money. The first thing I have to do when I reach the United States is to start working so I can get this burden off my back.”
Jean-Baptiste said he wishes he had known when he went to apply for a Brazilian visa that the construction jobs that existed before the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Olympics were no longer available.
“A lot of people are always fighting in the line in Haiti just to find a visa,” he said. “When they arrive, they can’t even afford to pay rent.”
He was unemployed during his entire stay in Brazil.
“I had a few friends who helped me out and when they couldn’t anymore I had to seek help from a church,” he said. “I saw things were so difficult that I decided to take my chances.”
A better life
The Brazilian Embassy issues about 2,000 visas a month. The cost is $260. Despite the problems in Brazil, demand is still high. There is a three month wait for an appointment.
“The leaders here don’t create the opportunities for the population to work,” said Mackenson Louis, who was dropping off an application at the visa center on a recent morning. “I am 33 years old. I’ve done all of my studies and I can’t find work. You have no choice but to leave to go in search of a better life somewhere else.”
Brazil’s ambassador to Haiti, Fernando Vidal, told the Herald that he hopes Haitians who go to Brazil find a reason to stay there. “We created the legislation in Brazil only for Haitian people. What we want is for them to come to our country, feel at home and stay there...find job opportunities in my country.”
The special benefit is up for review next month.
“There is always the possibility of not renewing it if there are reasons that justify it,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t happen.... But the day that we conclude that it’s not working anymore, it might change.”
At the other end of the route, in Tijuana, four shelters house arriving migrants. The Desayunador Salesiano Padre Chava soup kitchen is the biggest draw, after migrants sent word via social media. Hundreds of Haitians hang out on its sidewalk and yard, most with no idea of what to expect once they cross into U.S. territory.
But on many of their phones: the name and number of Pastor Jean Elise Durandisse, the head of the Haitian ministry at the Methodist Church, who has been helping arriving migrants after they are released from lock up.
“They know where we are. We cannot hide from them,” Durandisse said, inside his church office. “We try the best we can but we cannot keep up. It’s heartbreaking to see your brothers and sisters like this.”
Some think that the paper given to them by immigration authorities with a three-year expiration date is proof of Temporary Protected Status, the benefit given to tens of thousands of Haitians by the Obama administration after the earthquake. It is not. The document is a record of their parole, letting them know that they’ve been temporarily allowed in pending a final decision by an immigration judge.
“The problem with social media is its also gives the wrong information,” said the Rev. Pat Murphy, who operates the Casa Migrante shelter in Tijuana. “They may send a picture from Tijuana saying ‘We’re almost there,’ not knowing how far away they are from asylum. You’re at the border but there is no guarantee you’re going to get asylum.”
Across the border in Normal Heights where the church is located, reality is beginning to sink in.
Most days for the last few months, about 200 migrants line up for a hot meal or to learn about U.S. etiquette and pick up practical tips, like how to cover the ankle bracelet that border officials put on migrants without papers to keep track of them. The volunteers who are part of the Haitian Bridge Alliance also try to track down family members — though the news that relatives have arrived isn’t always welcomed.
This week, the church reached its breaking point. The migrants had to be temporarily moved to two facilities that will only be available for two weeks. On the other side of the border in Tijuana: Hundreds of waiting Haitians.
Volunteer Guerline Jozef shook her head: “I don’t know what the next step will be.”
Jozef helped Ones Alcenat, a 29-year-old Haitian who made the trek from Brazil and then to Miami in August. He had hoped to live with relatives but they turned him away. Jozef and others paid for a hotel room and then found him a one-room efficiency in a trailer park.
He knows others aren’t so lucky. One recent South Florida arrival, for example, is homeless and seven months pregnant. She spends two nights a week sleeping on the sofa of friends. Another has gone to a different state after friends would no longer house him.
Alcenat, who has enrolled in English classes to sharpen his skills and dreams of getting a college degree, said the reality isn’t exactly what he had hoped for.
Recently his younger brother called. He’s in Brazil, and he was asking about the trip.
“When you tell people how tough it is, most of the time they will not believe you,” he said. “They always think the U.S. is heaven on earth. I think the U.S. is a land of opportunity. When you live here, there are a lot of opportunities for you to thrive. You can achieve your dreams but you need to know what you’re doing. There are also a lot of very dark times in here.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau Latin American Affairs Correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.