On​ 2 March, armed men broke into two prisons in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and released almost five thousand inmates. The ratatatat of automatic gunfire sounded continuously throughout the city as the gangs torched buildings and had firefights with police. The US embassy, which since 2018 has warned Americans not to travel to Haiti, sent an email strongly advising its citizens to depart immediately by ‘commercial or other privately available transportation options’. But there were no options: gangs had taken the airport and controlled the major highways; the border with the Dominican Republic was closed. The unelected prime minister, Ariel Henry, in post since the assassination of Jovenel Moïse in 2021, was in Kenya, where he had flown a few days earlier to negotiate the deployment of a ‘multinational security support force’. No one wanted him back. Even the president of the Dominican Republic refused to allow him to use Hispaniola’s airspace. ‘I don’t know what they’re fighting over,’ my friend A. said a few days later, during a lull in the shooting. By then gangs had laid siege to the ports and ransacked hospitals and businesses. ‘There’s nothing left here.’

The US Coastguard has reported no increase in attempted crossings so far, but Republicans quickly seized on fears of a Haitian exodus. ‘What American didn’t get here somehow?’ the Haitian poet Félix Morisseau-Leroy wrote in 1991. ‘But it’s us they call boat people.’ That year, tens of thousands of Haitians took to the sea following the CIA-aided coup that removed the country’s first democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. After the 2010 earthquake, and the subsequent electoral fiasco that brought Michel Martelly to power, Haitians again gave up on their country. They emigrated not just to the US or Canada, but to Brazil and later Chile, whose economies were booming. Their welcome was temporary. In 2015, for the first time, large numbers of Haitians made the seven-thousand-mile journey through South and Central America, and then north through Mexico to the US border. Some sought asylum. But most were simply ‘chèche lavi’ – looking for life.

In September last year, I visited a migrant encampment in Reynosa, a border town in northeastern Mexico. It was boiling hot and the dingy wall enclosing the encampment glowed white in the sun. Few of the places where people wait to cross the US-Mexico border are comfortable, but this one was especially bad. There were no toilets, no running water and no protection from rain, wind or sun. There was rubbish everywhere; it wasn’t easy to tell what was garbage and what might still be in use. Near the entrance to the camp was a small table where men played dominoes. Behind it hung various repurposed pieces of fabric: a street banner advertising beer; a child’s bedspread; a serape in blue and white. Twenty or so of the camp’s residents were crammed within the sliver of shadow provided by these remnants. They stood with arms crossed or sat on overturned buckets. All were Haitians who hoped to find a better life in the US. They had gathered to be told about the ways they were likely to be thwarted.

The speaker was Nicole Phillips, a lawyer for an American advocacy group called the Haitian Bridge Alliance. She wore a baseball cap and an aid-worker apron with the Kreyòl translation of ‘Many hands make light work’ printed on it. Gaining entry at the US’s southwest border has become incredibly complicated. Each of the 48 crossing posts has its own rules, which change often and are arbitrarily enforced. The language – not only around immigration law and asylum but also process and protocol – is opaque and at times seems intended to confuse. Washington politics, and in particular the spectre of Donald Trump, loom large.

In February, Trump exerted his influence to scupper a bipartisan deal that, among other restrictions, would have enabled the president to ‘shut down’ the border if the number of migrant encounters exceeded certain thresholds. Perhaps the bill wasn’t harsh enough for him. More likely, a ‘secure’ border is not in his interest ahead of the election: he wants voters to fear an invasion from the Global South – ‘shithole countries’, as he called them in 2018. As president, Trump tried to end Temporary Protected Status for victims of disasters in Haiti and several other countries, and used the pandemic to invoke a statutory provision, Title 42, which all but eliminated asylum claims. It took Biden more than two years to lift it, but for most of 2023 his border regime was comparatively humane to Haitians. Around 126,000 of them were able to secure individual sponsors, allowing them to reside in the US for two years. At least 67,000 more have been ‘paroled’ into the United States from the southwest border, declaring an intent to seek asylum, and given a notice to appear at deportation hearings. In total, this amounts to almost 2 per cent of the Haitian population.

Nicole tried to convey two main points to her audience in Reynosa. First, don’t cross until you have an appointment for inspection at a port of entry. Last spring, the government agency Customs and Border Protection launched a smartphone app, CBP One, which would-be migrants are supposed to use to book these inspections. The app is glitchy, but, as Nicole said, Haitians had been getting appointments in Reynosa. Keep trying, she said. Be patient. If you cross with an appointment, you are more likely to be paroled into the US and allowed to make your case for asylum, although the hearing may be some years away. Crossing without an appointment, by wading or swimming across the Rio Grande and turning yourself in to Border Patrol, makes asylum almost impossible. It is also to risk immediate removal and a five-year ban on crossing again.

Second, Nicole said, you must understand what it means to be an asylum seeker, someone fleeing persecution, with all the special protections that entails, versus an economic migrant, who has no protection. In Haiti, it’s hard to separate the political from the economic. Political leaders have armed and empowered gangs, which terrorise the population and make it impossible to engage in normal economic behaviour, such as going to work or saving money. American asylum law doesn’t protect people fleeing general violence and extortion. If asked during your appointment why you want to come to the United States, Nicole said, it’s best to emphasise your fear of returning to Haiti rather than the hopes you have of a better life in America. ‘Is anyone here not scared to return to Haiti?’ she asked. There was silence followed by laughter. ‘They killed the president in his bedroom!’ someone called out.

The camp itself was in a dangerous neighbourhood of Reynosa. Nicole and I had been told to be ready to make a ‘hard out’ in the event of gunfire or reports of cartel trouble. Smuggling groups have made a business out of helping migrants cross the Rio Grande and are not keen on competitors. If we got the signal we would flee in our car, perhaps sheltering in a nearby superstore if we couldn’t cross the bridge. The migrants had many fewer options.

When the meeting was over, I introduced myself to one of the women. M. had been a market seller in Gonaïves, a city about sixty miles north of Port-au-Prince. Over the years she expanded her business and became a successful vendor of various foodstuffs – garlic, salted herring, tomato sauce, bouillon cubes. Margins were small, so she relied on high-interest loans to finance her wholesale purchases, borrowing at rates of 40 per cent or more, with extra fees for late payments.

For many years M. left home before dawn on buying trips, arriving at the Port-au-Prince market of Croix-des-Bossales (the name of the 18th-century slave market that once operated there) by 8 a.m., and returning to Gonaïves before lunchtime. But by 2017, the journey had become difficult. Moïse was inaugurated in February following one botched election and another barely credible one, at which only 20 per cent of voters turned out. There were sometimes roadblocks on Route Nationale 1, the main highway from the north of Haiti to the capital, and often gunfire. If she had to buy stock, M. made herself go to the city ‘no matter what’. She had loans to repay. Even after her friend Odette was shot in the eye and killed during a market trip, M. felt the risk was necessary. She had nothing to do with gangs and was well known. She thought this would afford her some protection.

One morning in the summer of 2017 she got off the bus in Port-au-Prince and was set on by a group of men. ‘They beat me,’ she said. ‘There was a man behind me. He hit me from behind.’ Another assailant hit her knees with something sharp, like a shiv. Someone held a gun to her head. She had her cash, about $770, in a sachet in her bra and tried to tell them just to take it, but the men were attacking her so fiercely she couldn’t make herself heard.

M. was badly hurt, but managed to get home to Gonaïves, where she hid out; she was now badly in debt. Prosecutors wanted her to testify against her assailants. A juge d’instruction called to persuade her. ‘I told the judge, how would I know what they look like? I don’t even live in Port-au-Prince, and they came up behind me, I never saw their faces.’ If M., a ‘gwo marchann’ whom everyone knew, identified the bandits in a court of law, she would face retribution. She knew that even before the driver of the bus she had been on was killed. ‘There is no way there would be justice,’ she told me. ‘This was Haiti, a place where they shot the president in his own house, where they leave the ti malere, the weakest of the unfortunates, to die on the street.’ M. sold everything she had to pay back the loan. Her brother bought her a plane ticket and on 18 July 2017, she flew from the Dominican Republic to Chile. She was granted a visa on arrival and found work picking apples. She learned Spanish, met the man who would become her husband and for a short time had a new life.

M. might have a decent case for asylum in the US, Nicole told me, if she had evidence for her claims and framed her story the right way. She would need to convince the judge that the violence she suffered and feared was neither random nor general. Few Haitians who press their claims in court win asylum: 20 to 30 per cent historically, dropping under 10 per cent during the Trump era.

Even before last month’s collapse, many Haitians were describing their country as ‘fini’. ‘Pa gen peyi d’Ayiti anko’ is the refrain: ‘There is no country of Haiti anymore.’ In Tijuana, I met a 43-year-old accountant who used to work for a large Haitian company. It shut down after gangs threatened the owners. He sent his wife and small children out of Port-au-Prince for their safety but was unable to visit because gangs had taken over the highways. It was a double bind, he said: if you could afford to pay the ‘tax’ demanded at checkpoints, you would probably be a good kidnapping target.

US asylum law favours those persecuted because of identity or ideology, rather than those whose lives are made impossible by state failure or criminality. To ‘chèche lavi’ sounds like economic behaviour. Of course, the reasons Haitians must search for a livelihood, and a life, elsewhere, are political at every level. The US has played a decisive role in Haiti’s collapse. One proximate cause: its outlandish intervention in Haiti’s 2010 election, where aid was made conditional on the result. Jake Johnston’s new book, Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism and the Battle to Control Haiti (St Martin’s Press, £24.99), analyses America’s sordid manipulation of that election, which brought the corrupt – but pro-US – Martelly to power, as well as the 2016 election of Moïse, Martelly’s chosen successor. At the time of Moïse’s assassination in 2021, there were only ten elected officials in Haiti. For more than thirty months after that, and despite thoroughgoing Haitian opposition, Washington supported the leadership of Ariel Henry. That support ended only when his return to Haiti was prevented last month.

Two months after Moïse’s assassination, Americans were shocked by images from Del Rio, Texas, where fifteen thousand Haitian asylum seekers spent weeks living outdoors, waiting for inspection. One photograph showed a Border Patrol officer on horseback chasing a group of men. Instead of supporting a democratic transition in Haiti, or securing overdue legislative reform at home, the Biden administration has fudged its migration policies to permit hundreds of thousands of Haitians to come or remain in the US with liminal status. It is poor recompense. Haitians have hardly failed to notice that they are being forced to seek refuge in the country that has made their own unliveable. Biden’s more generous immigration policies have also ironically helped to reduce the alternatives to Henry, because so many opposition leaders have fled.

I met D. at an outdoor shelter in the Mexican city of Matamoros, 55 miles east of Reynosa. It was another blazingly hot day, but the shelter was large, orderly and clean, with identical green and white tents laid out in neat grids. A huge metal awning provided shelter. One wing was mostly occupied by Venezuelans. The other, smaller wing was Haitian.

Things had gone well for D. He had scored a place in the shelter and had managed to book an appointment on the CBP One app almost immediately. His inspection was scheduled for the next day. Although his passport was Haitian, he had been rendered stateless for much of his life. He was born in St Martin, where his mother lived illegally and worked as a housekeeper. She had fled Haiti following the coup against Aristide and the US-led embargo that made life very difficult for the poor. Aristide was restored by the US on condition that he carry out neoliberal reforms, which destroyed the rural economy. ‘It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked,’ Bill Clinton admitted later. ‘I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti.’

After being expelled from St Martin, D.’s mother returned to her parents’ home in southern Haiti, but they argued about her failure to repay a loan and she soon left for the Dominican Republic, again working illegally. The Dominican Republic is known for its hostility to Haitians, but she made something of a life there and when D. was about thirteen, he went to join her. He began working illegally too – his Spanish is better than his Kreyòl now. In 2017, D. decided to seek his fortune in Chile, whose government was keen to attract foreign workers at the time. He got a job in construction, then a better one laying cable and power lines. He sent money back to his mother and young son. He got an apartment, a car, a dog. But when Sebastián Piñera returned to power in 2018, visa restrictions were imposed and hundreds of Haitians were flown back to Port-au-Prince on ‘voluntary’ deportation flights.

D. stayed. He didn’t want to speak badly of Chile, ‘but we did suffer, as Haitians.’ In the summer of 2023, he gave up his lease, found someone to adopt his dog and sold his car. He travelled north to Matamoros on the proceeds. His luck seemed good. The trek – seven thousand miles by bus, ferry, foot and canoe – took him only fifteen days. He hoped to get to New York, where he had friends, Haitians he’d known in Chile, who promised to put him up in Brooklyn. He wouldn’t have attempted the journey if Trump had been in power, he told me. ‘He doesn’t want Blacks. He hates Haitians – if he is elected, he will want to return every one of them back to Haiti.’

In the US, the language of migration tends toward the hydraulic: surge, wave, pressure, influx, flood, flow. These terms cast human movement as a physical force rather than the outcome of decisions made across decades and centuries. Since 2014 it has become common for American headlines to declare an ‘unprecedented surge’ of migration at the southern border. This primed US citizens for the hysteria of Trump’s repeated assertion that ‘illegal immigration is poisoning the blood of our country.’ A poll conducted in January found that nearly half of Americans agreed.

Before the Iowa caucuses, I watched a video of an elderly Trump supporter trying to explain why ‘the immigration thing’ was of great concern to her. She patted her chest and said: ‘I’m a Christian woman, and I believe we have to help others.’ Then she sighed heavily. ‘But I don’t know what to do about that.’ The interview took place in Elk Run Heights, Iowa, where, according to 2021 data, three of the 886 residents were born outside the United States and all were naturalised citizens. The Texas border is more than a thousand miles away.

Though Americans have strong opinions about the border, few know what’s going on there. Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, who runs an organisation called the Sidewalk School, is one of those who does. The Sidewalk School operates in both Matamoros and Reynosa. At first it ran schools for children stuck at the border, employing asylum seekers as teachers; now it also provides food, shelter and legal and clinical services as well as a satellite internet service – essential for booking CBP One appointments.

On the evening of 11 May last year, as President Biden prepared to lift the Title 42 restrictions on asylum seekers, police and journalists staked out the Texas side of the border to capture the expected migrant hordes. No one appeared. Around midnight, Felicia explained to the journalists that it wasn’t in the interest of asylum seekers to rush the border, and risk deportation. ‘It’s excessive,’ she said, gesturing at the police squadrons. ‘I’m not sure why we feel there’s so much of a threat now. Who is all this for?’

Is there a ‘crisis’ at the border? Prodded repeatedly to use the word, Alejandro Mayorkas, the US secretary of homeland security, has refused. ‘The choice of language has become a proxy for the politics of the issue,’ he told a New York Times reporter in February, as House Republicans planned his impeachment. Mayorkas is right, but he might do better to admit that there are multiple border crises, and to articulate what they are. Migrants do not pose a threat to the United States. Quite the reverse: the border is unsafe for migrants.

The International Organisation for Migration describes the US-Mexico border as the world’s deadliest land crossing, with more fatalities than the Darién Gap in southern Panama. IOM recorded nearly seven hundred deaths and disappearances in 2022 and the real total must be higher (they couldn’t access data from several Texas county coroners’ offices or the Mexican search and rescue agency). In 2022, Customs and Border Protection was chastised by the Government Accountability Office for lapses in the recording of migrant deaths. It has yet to publish reports for the last two fiscal years, although internet data leaked to CBS gave a figure of 853 deaths for 2021-22.

The Biden government has called the CBP One app a success; right-wing lawmakers depict it as ‘concierge service’ for migrants. It’s really just a tech-enabled method of ‘metering’ inspections, a practice introduced by Obama in 2016 in response to growing numbers of Haitian asylum seekers, but with better optics: fewer images of huddled masses at border crossings. The app gives the CBP more control over who is inspected. A fixed number of inspections are granted each day – currently 1450 – across eight of the 48 ports of entry. The basis on which they are awarded is unclear. When I was in Mexico in September, Haitians were waiting less than a month for an appointment, but the waiting period has now reportedly increased to five or six months.

Those unable to schedule an inspection or wait for one have limited options. Some line up outside the crossings, only to be chased away by Mexican soldiers. Some cross the border between ports of entry with the intention of surrendering to Border Patrol as soon as possible. The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, has spent $10 billion on a deterrence strategy, Operation Lone Star, which includes miles of concertina wire and saw blades attached to buoys in the Rio Grande. A law permitting Texas police to arrest asylum seekers is in litigation. Border Patrol has begun operating a handful of open-air detention sites along the Californian border. There, asylum seekers are forced to wait, sometimes for days, to be processed, but are offered no medical care, sanitation or shelter. The government disputes that it is detaining anyone, and claims that the migrants are free to leave.

Much of the border is a zone of no accountability. At a children’s shelter run by the Mexican government in Tijuana, I met a ten-year-old boy, B., who had been stuck there for almost two months. His mother had been granted humanitarian parole in the US some eighteen months earlier. She had arranged for B. to fly from Haiti to Mexico and placed him in the care of a friend who agreed to help him get across the border. The friend had instead passed B. on to another person, who charged his mother $500 a month for his care. Eventually B. ran away and tried to cross the border himself. He was detained by Mexican authorities and taken to the shelter.

B. had a mobile phone but was not allowed to contact his mother. A shelter official who was present during our interview said the phone was broken, and this was the reason they hadn’t contacted his mother. B. said (in Kreyòl, which the official couldn’t understand) that his mother was on Facebook and could have been contacted there. When I spoke to her on the phone later, she told me she had been frantic with worry. Someone claiming to be a lawyer had rung her up and offered to locate her son if she paid him $1100. As soon as she wired the money, he stopped replying to her. Six weeks after B.’s disappearance, she saw a phone number for the Haitian Bridge Alliance. She called them. The Bridge and its partners scoured their networks and eventually found B. at the shelter.

I knew that M. had reached the US safely when the avatar on her WhatsApp profile changed to an American flag with a bald eagle in the foreground. She and her husband have been staying with family members in Florida. When I last spoke to her, she had applied for a work permit, but not asylum. D. arrived in New York City on the same day that the mayor, Eric Adams, warned that immigrants would destroy the city. We didn’t discuss this when I met him a month later in Flatbush, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn where many Caribbean immigrants live. D. was staying in an apartment off Nostrand Avenue, near a stretch of the street known as Toussaint L’Ouverture Boulevard. He had been surprised to discover that getting a work permit meant a long, bureaucratic process costing hundreds of dollars. He was looking – unsuccessfully – for off-the-books work and worrying about paying the rent. The house his friends from Chile had tried to secure had fallen through, but the owner had kept their deposit. In the meantime, they were renting part of a one-room apartment. The living area was partitioned by a curtain: the owner of the apartment stayed on the window side; D. got the brown fabric futon near the galley kitchen, for which he paid $250 a month. The Haitians in Flatbush were not kind to new arrivals, he said. When asked for directions, some of them pretended not to know Kreyòl – ‘even if I had just heard them speaking it on the phone’. He was already thinking about returning to Chile.

We sat on the futon and spoke about his journey. He traced his route from Santiago to Matamoros on my phone and showed me photographs of his son, still in the Dominican Republic, and of his dog in Santiago. He played a video of the ferry crossing from Necoclí in Colombia to the start of the Darién Gap. Everything was bright: the sun shone on the sea and on the faces of the passengers. They could have been on a pleasure boat.

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