Young Haitians learn Chilean life isn't what they expected
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SANTIAGO, CHILE — A day’s work. That’s all Benissont Joseph needed.
As he stood by the side of a dusty road in a country more than 3,500 miles from home, clutching his backpack and a phone, he prayed: Please let one of the passing cars or trucks stop and give me a job.
This was not what he had envisioned for his new life in Chile. In October, before he left Haiti, the 28-year-old had considered going to Brazil or Mexico, the route for previous waves of Haitian migrants hoping to eventually make it to the United States, but he ruled those countries out after recent changes in U.S. immigration policy left thousands stranded at the U.S.-Mexico border.
So he gambled on Chile, a place that he’d heard about from others who had left as a country that still opened its arms to strangers without visas. He scraped together $1,200 for the airfare, flew 11 hours and wound up here: alone on a country road on a chilly morning, 19 miles north of the capital city of Santiago, hoping for a day laborer’s gig.
Chile is anything but a land of boundless opportunities, he has realized.
“Chile is a real deception. It’s utter desolation,” said Joseph, as he kept an eye out for slowing cars that might signal work while also checking his cellphone for job leads so he could pay his $134 January rent. “But better you’re here than you are not.”
A country built mostly on white migration from Europe seems like an unlikely landing spot for Haitians. Yet nearly 105,000 flocked here in the last year — the equivalent of 1 percent of Haiti’s population — according to Chile’s border police. And hundreds continue to arrive daily, fearful that they may no longer be welcomed when a new Chilean government takes office on March 11.
The exodus is being driven by the French and Creole-speaking nation’s young people, both educated and uneducated, and particularly the rural poor. Mostly male, between the ages of 15 and 44, this group of migrants is propelled by a growing sense of hopelessness about what the future holds in Haiti.
And they’re part of a global migration trend of working-age people seeking a new start in higher-income countries, according to the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration.
In the case of Haiti, a series of natural disasters in the Caribbean nation coupled with a stagnant economy, and the imposition of harsher immigration policies in the U.S., the Dominican Republic and other traditional destinations, have fueled the shift in Haitian migration patterns to Latin America. Chile, with its stable economy, is increasingly replacing the U.S. as a promising destination for young Haitians.
“Chile has become an alternative,” said Rodrigo Delgado, mayor of Estación Central district in Santiago, which receives about 150 migrants — mostly Haitian — a day, some arriving at the city’s migrant office with suitcases still in hand. “And when someone has made the decision that they want to leave … they are going to do what they can.”
The journey often starts with hardship, even before departure from Haiti. Joseph spent 11 days sleeping in a park at Port-au-Prince’s international airport with hundreds of other Chile-bound passengers before he resorted to slipping an airline employee $100 to confirm a seat on a flight, he said.
“You go to school, finish your studies and learn a profession. But if you don’t have a godmother or a godfather looking out for you, you can’t work,” said Joseph, repeating a familiar complaint about Haiti’s who-you-know nepotism culture. “That’s not a life. You’re forced to leave.”
Five years ago, opportunities in Chile were more plentiful. There were fewer Haitians, and Chile’s economy was stronger. Now, Haitians face the shock of a new culture, competition from an increasing number of Spanish-speaking migrants from Venezuela, and a sense that they aren’t always welcome. Employers abuse and underpay them. Landlords crowd them into overpriced, closet-sized rooms. Scam artists try to sell them useless work contracts that could put them on the wrong side of the law.
Misled about the golden prospects in Chile, many struggle against loneliness, occasional episodes of racism and resentment from some Chileans. Recently, a fight erupted in Estación Central between Chileans and unauthorized Haitian street vendors selling a popular chocolate-covered cookie called Super 8. The fight with sticks and fists was captured on video.
Even migrants who have found acceptance and a permanent home in Chile say the country is struggling to assimilate the Caribbean arrivals.
“We are new for the Chileans,” said Richard Joseph, 40, a Haitian who came to Chile four years ago and was celebrated as a hero after saving a Chilean woman who had thrown herself from the ninth floor of a building in a suicide attempt. “Up to now, we blacks are new.”
Political and social discontent
Haitians starting trickling into Chile after Chilean troops were stationed in Haiti as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2004 to stabilize the country after the bloody ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
With every new Haitian political and economic crisis since, a new wave of people has shown up, making Haitians the fastest growing migrant community along with Venezuelans. As a result, Haitians have become a flashpoint in a debate over migration and Chile’s immigration law that allows individuals to enter as tourists for up to 90 days and later apply for work visas and residency.
In 2010, there were 81 requests for permanent residency, but in 2016, that number had risen to 3,646, according to Social Development Minister Marcos Barraza.
Work visa requests, too, have soared — from 8,429 in 2015 to 35,277 a year later. And Haitians in Chile are increasingly wiring money home. Chile’s Central Bank said Haitians sent back $36 million in 2016 — five times more than they did in 2015.
In the Santiago metropolitan area, where most people are white, Haitians are a small but noticeable population. They’re on street corners selling everything from ice cream to tennis shoes, driving Ubers with small Haitian flags dangling above the dashboard, or hanging out in the Plaza de Armas, the main public square, where the free Wi-Fi allows them to speak their native Creole as they call friends and family.
Farther north along bustling San Luis Avenue in the Quilicura district near the airport, restaurants advertise Haitian food alongside Chilean cuisine, a corner store flies a large red-and-blue Haitian flag, and sellers at a local street market woo shoppers in Creole-accented Spanish marked by Chilean expressions.
But not everyone is embracing this more diverse Chile.
A 2017 survey by Chile’s National Institute of Human Rights found that 68 percent of Chileans want stricter immigration controls. Also, while many view migrants as “good workers,” about 47 percent believe they are taking jobs from Chileans. And nearly 25 percent surveyed in the metropolitan area believe that Haitians are “dirtier” than Chileans are.
Such perceptions, say migration advocates and scholars, underscore concerns that the influx may be generating growing feelings of racism against Haitians.
“You see them selling in street corners, working cleaning the streets … and there has been police violence against Haitians,” said Cristián Doña-Reveco, a Chilean migration expert who heads the Office of Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Haitians are also subject to exploitation, abuse and mistreatment as they seek work in construction and on farms, and other back-breaking manual labor.
Six weeks after arriving, Benissont Joseph found a three-week job building a pool. When he complained to his Chilean employer about the long hours, he was fired, he said.
“He owes me $340, and has blocked my calls,” Joseph said.
Critics say while Chile’s central government has been receptive to the newcomers, it has not done enough to absorb the flow. A draft immigration bill promoted by President Michelle Bachelet came under fire from human rights and migration advocates as well as some mayors for focusing on border security rather than protecting migrants’ rights. Parliament sidelined it in January.
“Migration frightens a lot of people,” said Rodrigo Sandoval, Bachelet’s former immigration chief, who resigned in protest over the proposal because he felt it failed to promote a legislative debate over Chile’s migration policies.
During last year’s presidential elections, migration figured prominently, with several candidates, including President-elect Sebastián Piñera, who comes into office in March, being accused of stoking anti-immigrant sentiments. Piñera, who said during the campaign that he wants to restrict foreigners’ access to the public health system and limit migration to those who will contribute to the development of the country, blamed Chile’s decades-old migration law for “importing evils like delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime.” Among his accusations: Many criminal gangs in Chile consist of foreigners.
“There is no solid proof that the number of migrants is having a negative impact,” argued Peruvian lawyer and immigrant rights activist Rodolfo Noriega, who said there’s a lot of uncertainty about what Chile’s immigration policies will look like under Piñera. “I believe that the majority of migrants are making more contributions than what they are receiving back from the social welfare system.”
Calling the tone of Piñera’s campaign “strongly anti-immigrant,” Noriega, who heads the National Coordinator of Immigrants, said the question is whether the new president will go through with some of his hardline proposals to appease the far-right elements of the conservative coalition that helped him win the presidency.
He’s worried that migrant women with children born in Chile will be expelled, and noted that there have been calls to require travel visas for Haitians, a move he opposes.
“If they impose visa restrictions on Haitians, it would just increase an explosion in the numbers who are undocumented. They will just travel to Peru, Argentina or Bolivia and find a way to cross the frontier,” Noriega said. “Closing your borders doesn’t stop migration. It just drives it into the arms of traffickers.”
Waiting at the airport
At Port-au-Prince’s Guy Malary airport, the lines at the counters of two airlines that fly to Chile stretch outside most days. Hundreds sit calmly on their suitcases or huddle in the shade of trees, while others mill around in the parking lot and on the sidewalk awaiting their turn to travel to Santiago.
Because most of the tickets are purchased by friends or relatives in Chile through ticket brokers, and some have proven to be fraudulent, distrustful passengers arrive days in advance. The process of securing a seat is so fraught with worry that many raise their hands to the skies in a gesture of thanks to God when they finally board the plane.
No different from previous generations of Haitian migrants, they roll the dice, hoping that their South American destination will be better than the world they are leaving behind.
“This is despair,” Richard Hippolyte, who manages the Haiti operations for Latin American Wings, said in February as he surveyed the line of young men and women waiting to be checked in. “They’re trying to get something for themselves. Whether or not they succeed, that’s another story.”
Cottage industries have started springing up around the migration. Chile requires that migrants show they have at least $1,000 in cash, so sharp-eyed middlemen provide the money — at a fee of 10 percent or more. Other opportunists circle the airport offering to arrange the trips. Haiti’s government also has been cashing in, doubling the price of passports for first-time travelers.
Five months ago, Jacques Novembre was part of the line of Chile ticket-holders at the international airport during a particularly volatile period, when many were worried they wouldn’t get out of Haiti. The crowds became so disruptive, blocking airport traffic and arguing with airline employees, that airport officials eventually moved the Chile gates to the less-crowded domestic airport.
Novembre and his wife, Viviane — who came to see him off — traveled for hours on a public bus to get to the airport from Gonaives in the Artibonite Valley, then endured drenching rains in a park across the street as they waited together for five days until his departure.
They had spent a year contemplating their decision. Work was hard to find in Gonaives, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet from Viviane’s food business.
“It was only when things became even more difficult, and more complicated for me that I decided to go,” said Novembre, 45.
Still, the decision was tough — until the day in September when three of their five children were sent home from school because of unpaid school fees.
“We wouldn’t like to leave our country and go live with foreigners, but the situation of the country leaves you no other choice,” he said.
Viviane Novembre, 41, said the move was a necessary sacrifice to save her children. “The country is plunging down a black hole,” she said. “As a parent, you have to do everything you can so that your children aren’t brought up in the same deplorable state as you.”
They contacted a relative in Chile who agreed to buy the $1,000 ticket.
His wife said she hoped Novembre “finds something to do and sends me something so that I can take care of the children.”
He still hasn’t. After moving four hours south to the smaller city of Chillán, he occasionally finds work picking strawberries on a farm for $10 a day — not even half of the $23-a-day minimum wage.
He finds the work physically grueling and the town difficult to adapt to. He struggles with homesickness and the chilly weather.
“The only reason you don’t hear me say I am headed back to Haiti next month is because I don’t have a penny in my hands,” Novembre said, his voice heavy with disappointment.
“You might have been a doctor, engineer, director of a school in Haiti,” he said. “But everyone here is equal and with the same chance … everyone has to trace the same route. If it wasn’t for the possibility of getting permission to work, there would be no reason to hope.”
Life in Chile
But getting that permission isn’t easy. To work in Chile, migrants need a temporary work visa, which comes with a Chilean ID number, the first step toward permanent residency. And to get a visa, they need a job offer with a contract. Yet most employers require an ID number before offering a job contract.
It’s a Catch-22 that makes undocumented Haitians vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
The immigration rules don’t work, said Sandoval, Bachelet’s former immigration chief. The only way a migrant can legally enter Chile is as a tourist — with hotel reservations, pocket money and a return ticket. So migrants say they’re tourists. The law, Sandoval said, “promotes lying.”
And worse, he said, the system has “turned hostile, making the conditions immigrants find themselves in when they get to Chile even more precarious.”
Dieucilien Casseus has spent two years trying to legalize his work documents after a false contract landed him in trouble with Chilean authorities.
The 44-year-old former teaching administrator from Gonaives said he didn’t know his contract was fake until the immigration office turned down his work visa application. He’d paid someone to help him get a contract when he arrived in Chile and thought the agreement was legal.
Chile has been good to him, though. In August, he found steady employment as a machine technician at a textile factory, and his bosses have accompanied him to the immigration office to help him complete his resubmitted paperwork to legalize his status.
Pulling out a folder, he shows his copy of his visa application along with his Haiti training certificate and teaching degree, which isn’t recognized in Chile. He also had to leave his wife and daughters behind.
“Imagine having four children and no job,” said Casseus, who sold land to pay for his ticket and borrowed the rest. “I had no choice but to take the chance.”
Chile wasn’t his first choice. He had hoped to go to the U.S. But the Department of Homeland Security resumed deportations to Haiti in 2016 and the Trump administration in November ended Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, a humanitarian program that shielded nearly 60,000 from deportation. He’s mostly given up hope of getting to the U.S. for now.
“There was a time when there was anecdotal data showing that Haitians were coming to Chile to get to the United States,” said Doña-Reveco, the Chilean migration expert. “But when the U.S. restricted Haitians’ entrance last year, that migration can no longer go to the U.S. So it’s staying in Chile.”
Casseus’ $747 monthly salary, before taxes, is more than the $540 budget he had for the entire staff at the school in Haiti — 19 teachers plus support workers. But it comes at a steep price: He works 60 hours a week, leaving little time for social activities or Spanish classes, a necessity for a better job.
And he doesn’t make enough to support both households, even though his living quarters in Chile are so tiny that the room barely fits two twin beds with a small stove and refrigerator. He pays $260 a month, but he must share a bathroom with 15 other residents.
Still, he says, he scrapes together money each month to send to Haiti.
He recently took in the relative of a neighbor, allowing Jamsley Charles, 24, to sleep on the other bed for free, remembering how a stranger did the same for him. Twenty-two days after arriving from Haiti, Charles was still trying to find work.
Casseus said it pains him to see “the generation who is supposed to participate in the development of the country [of Haiti] being chased out by misery.”
Kesnel Clerge doesn’t know yet whether Chile will be home for him in the long term, but for now, he’s enjoying what he didn’t have in Haiti: financial security.
“If any of my children get sick right now, I am not worried about not having the money for the doctor,” he said.
Shortly after arriving last year, Clerge, 32, walked into a local grocery store, took a photo and posted it on Facebook as a commentary on the promising new life he had found — and the dead-end one he’d left behind.
“The message I was sending was just how I was in a market in Chile, I would like to be in a market like that in Haiti. But in my country, you can’t,” he said, explaining that street violence and fears for personal safety can infect even the most routine interactions in Haiti. “Just as I am comfortable here, I would like to be comfortable in my country.”
In Chile, he works six days a week at a furniture factory in Casablanca, an hour drive northwest of Santiago. He makes around $800 a month — a vast sum compared to the $78 a month he earned in Cap-Haïtien in a tourism job tending to vacationing tourists. The salary couldn’t even cover school fees for his three children.
“I spent nine years working and if I had a sick child, I couldn’t even afford to send them to the hospital. … I was in a bad situation,” he said, sitting in his tiny room that is just large enough for a twin bed, a small dresser and his carry-on suitcase.
To fund his Chilean dream, Clerge borrowed money from a friend, and raised the $3,500 he paid a middleman to arrange the trip by selling a few goats and a cow.
“I sold them with tears in my eyes,” Clerge said, “imagining if I ended up not succeeding, I would be forced to return home with nothing.”
After six months in Chile, starting with a job picking limes and oranges, Clerge got his one-year worker’s visa. He’s already working on applying for his five-year visa.
But the pull back to Haiti is strong. Every day, his wife calls asking when he’s coming back. He misses his 1-year-old son, who was just starting to sit up when he left. “If I enter Haiti, he won’t even recognize me,” Clerge said, choking back the tears. “This life is very unfair.”
Most of the Haitian newcomers are rootless, ready to move on if they see a better opportunity. They don’t want to build dream homes here or start businesses. Instead, they harbor dreams of going somewhere else, the U.S., Canada, even back to Haiti.
Stanley Mentor, 27, was in his fourth year of agronomy studies at the private Université Polyvalente d'Haïti in Port-au-Prince in 2015 when he called a family meeting and told them, “The way I see the country, there is no hope for the youth.”
With the financial support of his grandfather, who lives in Boston, Mentor headed to Chile in August 2016.
He was conned a couple of times at the beginning, when a short taxi ride cost $300, and when he paid $250 for what turned out to be a fake work contract. A $50-a-day construction job ended after six months when the boss became nervous about his lack of papers.
But eventually he landed a job doing maintenance work with a real contract. With that in hand, he’s been able to apply for a work visa.
“Life for me is 10,000 times better in Chile than in Haiti,” said Mentor, who pays $500 a month for a three-bedroom apartment with water, electricity and internet access. “It’s been a year-and-a-half since I’ve been on my own and not had to rely on family.
“Before I used to have to call an aunt or an uncle in the U.S., and say, ‘I have a problem here. I need $100 to pay for transportation to go to school,’ ” said Mentor, who speaks some Spanish.
“The life I have now, I wouldn’t have had it in Haiti. I wouldn’t have been able to rent an apartment on my own,” Mentor said. “How would I have been able to do that in Haiti?”
He hopes to return to Haiti — but it will take more than longing for him to pack his suitcase.
“I am waiting on a change,” he said. “I am waiting on development.”
As he watches the flood of young Haitians who continue to arrive in search of a better life, he sees decades of bad governance and empty promises — a democracy that has offered only disillusionment.
“If all the past governments had put structures in place, I wouldn’t have been here today. And neither would a lot of other youths — the engineers, agronomists, doctors — who are in Chile, suffering,” Mentor said. “When all of these youth leave Haiti, who is going to be left to take over?”
Jacqueline Charles: @Jacquiecharles
This project was made possible by a fellowship from the French-American Foundation - United States. The story does not reflect the views of the French-American Foundation or its directors, employees or representatives.