'A Lot Of Trauma': Haitian Families Deported From U.S. Border Struggle To Recover

“It’s not fair to treat people like I was treated,” said one Haitian woman who was deported from Del, Rio Texas. “I’m not a criminal.”

Marinise Sinais Cedieu keeps replaying in her head what happened to her in Del Rio, Texas: being handcuffed in front of her 3-year-old son, the screams of another man whose handcuffs were too tight, going a week without a hot meal.

Cedieu, a Haitian mother of two, came to the border hoping to pursue a better life for her family in the United States after first moving to Chile in 2016. Instead, she found herself camped out in frightful conditions for five days, hoping to be granted entry.

On Sept. 21, U.S. Border Patrol agents forcibly removed Cedieu, her husband, and her son and swiftly deported them back to Haiti, a country she had not seen in five years where political instability, violence and the coronavirus pandemic have upended life.

Cedieu is one of the 7,000 Haitian migrants and asylum-seekers the Biden administration has recently deported back to Haiti under Title 42, a Trump-era order that allows immigration officials to quickly deport people crossing the border under the pretense of pandemic health concerns, typically without giving them a chance to apply for asylum.

Continued use of the policy has outraged lawmakers and immigration advocates, who have called on President Joe Biden to halt deportations and repeal Title 42, a policy they call cruel and inhumane. While many Haitians were initially hopeful that the Biden administration would follow through on immigration reforms and grant opportunities to those most vulnerable, many immigrants find themselves in even direr situations than before.

“It’s just disappointing how arbitrary this U.S. practice has been about who to deport, who not to deport,” said Nicole Phillips, the legal director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, an immigration nonprofit advocacy group. “[The administration] is assuming that there’s a choice, that Haitian migrants are choosing to come to the U.S.–Mexico border. But in my experience in speaking with Haitian migrants, their primary concern is to be in a politically stable and secure environment, after the trauma of living in Haiti.”

One Disaster After Another

In Haiti, Cedieu was struggling financially and couldn’t find sustainable work to provide for her two children.

Since then, the situation in the Caribbean nation has only gotten worse.

In July, Haiti’s president was assassinated following months of political unrest and instability that have only intensified. In August, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the southwestern part of the country, killing more than 2,000, injuring 12,000, and leaving more than 650,000 people in need of emergency humanitarian assistance. At least 59% of Haiti’s population lives under the poverty line, while 24% live in extreme poverty ― and the wealth disparities are only expected to rise due to country’s the high levels of inequality and slow economic growth.

Considered one of the most unequal countries in the region, Haiti’s lack of public services, including access to health care, clean water and education, is a direct consequence of the country’s fragile public institutions and governance, which are rooted in a legacy of colonialism and authoritarianism. Haiti is also one of the few countries in the world that has yet to administer a vaccine against COVID-19, and the pandemic has taken a major toll.

“The Americas region needs to come together and not just push off Haitians onto somebody else,” said Phillip. “They need to come together and figure out solutions so that Haitians are welcomed as asylum seekers, as refugees who are unable to return to their country.”

“The failures that we’ve seen from the Biden-Harris administration to provide care and compassion to Haitians is one of those examples of how policy has been intentionally blind to Black people.”

- Patrice Lawrence, executive director of the UndocuBlack Network

Anti-Blackness In The Americas

Many Haitian migrants have sought refuge in South America searching for work and lax border restrictions. Chile hosts one of the world’s largest Haitian diasporas, according to the Los Angeles Times, since many Haitians migrated to the Andean nation in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. In 2012, fewer than 2,000 Haitians resided in Chile; by 2020, the number had grown to 182,000.

Cedieu and her husband were able to get by in Chile and even had their second child there. But they described tough conditions, and they had to leave Cedieu’s eldest son behind in Haiti with family because they could not get him a passport.

Phillips has interviewed dozens of Haitian migrants stuck in Mexico over the past weeks, and many told her they’d faced racism and xenophobia in South America that drove them north. Her clients said they were not being paid proper wages and had received little to no support when they sought help from law enforcement. One Haitian father told Phillips his daughter was being targeted for sexual assault. Another woman said she had been turned away from a hospital when she was in labor.

While in Chile, Cedieu and her husband heard about several family members who had successfully migrated to the United States. With former President Donald Trump, who had scapegoated immigrants and referred to Haiti and other nations as “shithole” countries, a record number of Haitian migrants and asylum-seekers presumed the Biden administration would welcome them with open arms.

A Colombian guide helps a Haitian father and daughter up a steep mountain slope near Colombia's border with Panama on Oct. 20, 2021. The 66-mile trek through dense rainforest and mountains is considered the most difficult stretch for migrants traveling from South America to the United States.
A Colombian guide helps a Haitian father and daughter up a steep mountain slope near Colombia's border with Panama on Oct. 20, 2021. The 66-mile trek through dense rainforest and mountains is considered the most difficult stretch for migrants traveling from South America to the United States.
John Moore via Getty Images

In August 2021, Cedieu and her family began a long trek north by foot. They traveled for a month from Chile through Colombia and Central America and up to Mexico, then finally into Del Rio.

The journey is often riddled with hurdles and risks. To make it to the U.S., migrants and asylum-seekers heading north from South America are required to cross the jungle of the Darien Gap ― the infamous 60-mile trek between Colombia and Panama where travelers have experienced robberies, rapes, wild animals and drug traffickers.

Haitian and other Black migrants and asylum-seekers are particularly susceptible to certain perils, including “high rates of extortion and abuse by law enforcement and immigration, extortion and kidnapping by organized crime, and racism by the general populace through the countries in which they are moving through,” said Nicole Ramos, the director of Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project.

When they do make it to the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. immigration system only compounds their challenges.

Believing In Biden’s America

The situation in Del Rio was anything but welcoming for Cedieu and thousands of other Haitians. In September, viral imagery circulated of Border Patrol agents on horseback chasing and whipping their horses’ reins at Haitian migrants, many of whom were camped along the river in Del Rio waiting to be processed by immigration authorities.

Cedieu and her family spent five days under the international bridge connecting Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña in Mexico with thousands of other Haitians, waiting to meet with immigration officials. Food and clean water were scarce, she told HuffPost via an interpreter. She knew Haitians inside the U.S. qualified for Temporary Protected Status, by which the U.S. government acknowledges the dangerous conditions in Haiti, and she was hopeful her family would get the chance to finally find stability and safety.

Instead, Cedieu watched as Border Patrol agents rounded up Haitian families around her. She and other mothers tried to ask for help, including diapers for their babies, but were rejected. Her son developed diarrhea that led to an infection Cedieu says he is still suffering today.

“It’s not fair to treat people like I was treated,” said Cedieu. “I’m not a criminal.”

Although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that it had launched an investigation into the matter, it didn’t stop the Biden administration from continuing deportation flights, sending hundreds of Haitians back each day. Between Sept. 19 and Oct. 3, the U.S. expelled more than 7,000 Haitians, including hundreds of families with children, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“To see people with their families and still keep sending them back to Haiti, there’s no consciousness,” said Cedieu.

“The border is one linear death camp.”

- Nicole Ramos, director of Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project

Advocates say that even Haitians who are granted entry face discriminatory treatment in the U.S. immigration system. The United States granted less than 5% of Haitians’ asylum requests between October 2018 and June 2021, the lowest rate among 83 nationalities for which asylum decision data is available, according to an Associated Press analysis.

“There is anti-Blackness in these policies. Immigration policy in the United States is not made with a lens that benefits Black folks in general, and then other times, we’ve seen laws specifically crafted to exclude Black people and to exclude Haitians,” said Patrice Lawrence, the executive director of the UndocuBlack Network. “The failures that we’ve seen from the Biden-Harris administration to provide care and compassion to Haitians is one of those examples of how policy has been intentionally blind to Black people.”

Those failures show up in a multitude of ways, Lawrence said, including the fact that Haitians and other Black migrants and refugees are not believed during asylum interviews that are often rushed or not even conducted in their own language.

In continuing policies like Title 42, the Biden administration is failing vulnerable people who need help, immigration advocates say.

“If you have governments creating circumstances that are going to lead to a slow death, like lack of access to proper housing, clothing, hygiene, clean water food, medical services, you’re creating conditions that are genocidal when you’re doing so knowingly. That’s where we are. The border is one linear death camp,” said Ramos.

Cedieu is struggling back in the countryside of Haiti. She has yet to find work. She sold her house years ago and is currently staying with relatives in a less-than-ideal situation.

But she doesn’t intend to stay for long. She plans to go back to Chile. The U.S. no longer seems like an option for her.

“It was so much suffering. [The U.S. government] didn’t need to do that to us,” she said. “It’s a lot of trauma associated with it all.”