TIJUANA—Gerald carries a small photo of his wife next to the fold of foreign bills he’s collected from the 10 countries he passed through to get here.
The photo reminds him why he's making the journey. And the bills are souvenirs for his kids—a way to illustrate the story he’ll tell them of his arduous two-month trek to the United States.
But first he has to get there. Unfortunately for Gerald, he arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border a few days too late. Now he’s stuck in Tijuana along with thousands of other Haitians.
On Sept. 22, the U.S. effectively closed its priority access lane for Haitian immigrants. Prior to that, Haitians had been allowed to enter the U.S. without fear of deportation, as part of a temporary reprieve following the devastating 2010 earthquake that punched Haiti to the floor.
Gerald was one of 50,000 Haitians who moved to Brazil after the earthquake to find a job in construction. But when the economy went south, many Haitians went north—beating a new trail to the U.S. And now that they're arriving at the U.S. border in massive numbers, Uncle Sam has decided to cancel his open invite.
Three weeks ago Homeland Security announced it would resume deportations to Haiti. "The situation in Haiti has improved sufficiently to permit the U.S. government to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis," said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, managing to keep a straight face.
His optimism was poorly timed. Twelve days later Hurricane Matthew slobbered its way across Haiti, killing 900 people and destroying farms. The U.S. has since decided to temporarily suspend removal flights to Haiti, but insists it won't reverse its position. "This should be clear: the policy change I announced on September 22 remains in effect, for now and in the future," Johnson said.
So now it’s babay, Haitians. All newcomers need to form a single file line at the nearest immigrant detention center to file an asylum request and begin their deportation proceedings.
Fusion requested information from Homeland Security about how many Haitians have been apprehended at the border since Sept. 22, but was told the data is not readily available. Fusion also requested information from the Justice Department about how many Haitians have filed asylum claims since then, but was told it could take up to two weeks to provide an answer.
For people like Gerald, the U.S. policy change is like getting invited over to someone’s house then getting arrested when you ring the doorbell. He’s one of the untold thousands of Haitian immigrants stranded between Brazil and Tijuana, with nowhere to go. They can't continue forward without risking deportation, and they can't go back to Brazil because all the jobs have dried up. So they're stuck in the middle, stateless, impoverished, displaced and mostly unwanted wherever they stop to rest.
So what happens to all these people? By now, all the Haitians making their way north know that the U.S. border is closed. They all communicate by social media, so word spreads fast on the immigrant trail. Some are starting to find day work in places like Tijuana, where Haitians can be seen making Mexican piñatas or cooking Haitian comfort food for other stranded immigrants.
But what’s their long-term Plan B? Will the Haitians who've left Brazil continue to push their way to the San Diego border and roll the dice with a long-shot asylum request? Or will they decide to drop their bags and settle wherever they are?
That’s the question facing the governments of Mexico and Central American countries—and not without a touch of worry. The longer people remain stuck in transit, the more likely a temporary refugee situation starts to become a permanent diaspora.
"I don't want Costa Rica to be the Plan B because we already have enough problems of our own," Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís told me during a recent interview in San José. "I don't want to see this human flow get here after months of hardships through jungles of Colombia and Panama—getting exploited and harassed, women being raped and children dying in the jungle—just to get stuck here."
Solís' concern is not unfounded. There are an estimated 4,000 Haitians stranded in Costa Rica following Nicaragua's decision to militarize its southern border in an attempt to halt the northbound flow of immigrants. What it’s done instead is give birth to sophisticated trafficking networks that charge $1,100 - $1,300 per head to smuggle people through Nicaragua, according to the Haitians who made it to Tijuana.
The situation has, however, created a pile up of several thousand Haitians crammed into a makeshift tent city on Costa Rica's northern border, where they wait for money wires to pay the coyotes to sneak them north.
There’s a similar group of Haitian immigrants gathered on Costa Rica's southern border with Panama. The situation is reportedly causing a strain on local communities. President Solís says he doesn't think his countrymen's exasperation and fear of the Haitians is racist, but that probably has more to do with it than he wants to admit.
"Communities have been generous receiving first the Cubans and now the Haitians, but they're tired. And borders and coasts are the poorest regions in the country. So here we have poor people living with poor people, and sharing their vital space with strangers,” Solís says.
In the case of Cubans, they are happy and jolly and loud. They look a lot like us, they eat the same kinds of things. The Haitians are a different story. Different language. Different color. Different traditions. Different culture. Cubans, almost all of them, had at least secondary schooling. They knew how to read and write. They did not use public spaces for sanitary purposes…these other migrants, not necessarily.
Some [Costa Ricans] are fearful. Paso Canoas [Costa Rica's southern border crossing with Panama] was a commercial outpost, but people don't want to go there anymore. The merchants started complaining, then the municipal government started complaining, so we have to handle that carefully."
— President Luis Guillermo Solís
The ripple effect of the U.S. closing its border to Haitians is forcing governments like Costa Rica to reevaluate its own immigration policies and border security.
"The U.S. wants to deport Haitians, and that changes the game … we will have to consider harsher measures at our borders, because otherwise [the Haitians] could start thinking that [Costa Rica] is their second best option," President Solís told me.
Costa Rica knows it doesn't have the manpower to close its borders, or the resources to deport the Haitians back to Haiti, but Solís says his government has to do something. Solís thinks if every country does its part to enforce border controls, the estimated 25,000-plus Haitians remaining in Brazil will stay put in South America "because it's not going to be worth it for them to come from Brazil to the United States overcoming border complications every step of the way."
But that might be wishful thinking.
The Haitians I met this week in Tijuana aren't a group that's easily deterred. They've trekked 6,000 miles and spent upwards of $7,000 a head to make it to the U.S. border. They've overcome more obstacles in two months than most people do in a lifetime.
And one woman I met did it all while carrying a 10-month old baby in her arms. "We have to keep going. We can't stay here," said 32-year-old mother Nadeye Felix, as she coddled her baby in the streets of Tijuana.
But the the number of Haitians who make it through to San Diego has reportedly dropped to near zero in recent weeks. Hiram Soto, a spokesman for San Diego’s Christ United Methodist Churches, says prior to the recent policy change, upwards of 200 Haitian immigrants were arriving each day to three makeshift shelters run by local churches. On Sept. 22, it was like someone turned off the spigot. Three weeks later the shelters are virtually empty, as the Haitians leave San Diego to join family and diaspora in New York and Florida.
Back in Tijuana, Gerald admits he doesn't have it all figured out yet. He doesn't know what he's going to do yet. He's been on the road to the U.S. for more than two months, and got within spitting distance. But if it comes down to settling in Tijuana or risking deportation back to Haiti, Gerald says it's a no-brainer.
"I'm not going back to Haiti. I could stay here easily. There's economy here. I'm a gardener. I'll find work then send for my family to join me here."