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For Haitian migrants, waiting in Tijuana brings fear, discrimination, even death

By Kate Morrissey, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: June 26, 2022, 11:38am
3 Photos
Two men place the casket of Jocelyn Anselme, 34, in a hearse on Thursday, June 2, 2022.
Two men place the casket of Jocelyn Anselme, 34, in a hearse on Thursday, June 2, 2022. (Ana Ramirez/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

TIJUANA, Mexico — In the last phone conversation that Pethou Archange had with her younger brother, he told her that he had a surprise for her birthday.

The next day, Archange, 41, received a call that her brother had died in Tijuana, becoming the latest in the city’s Haitian community to make headlines for a death that might have been prevented but for the overlapping effects of U.S. border policies and systemic racism in Mexico.

The nonprofit Haitian Bridge Alliance, with offices in San Diego and Tijuana, has helped cover the costs of 12 funerals for such deaths since December, according to Vivianne Petit-frère, a community liaison with the organization based south of the border who is herself a migrant trying to reach the United States.

Those deaths, Petit-frère said, are usually either caused by violent attacks during a robbery or rejection by hospitals and clinics when Haitians attempt to seek medical care. It is often a combination of the two.

“It’s not just in Tijuana. It’s in all of Mexico,” Petit-frère said in the Spanish she’s learned since coming to Mexico. “I can say it’s a systemic racism. At every level of social life, Haitians face danger.”

According to Archange, her brother, 31-year-old Calory Archange, was among those whose death could have likely been prevented by proper medical care. He started feeling chest pain while he was in Tapachula, a city near the Mexico-Guatemala border where migrants often get stuck for months on their journeys north. But, even after he reached Tijuana, he was never able to find a doctor willing to see him about it.

“Migrants don’t have a right to medical care. They don’t have a right to anything,” Archange said in Spanish, which she learned living in the Dominican Republic and Chile. “They’re discriminated against a lot here in Tijuana.”

Her brother’s funeral in early June was joined with that of fellow Haitian Jocelyn Anselme, who was beaten and robbed while walking home. He died a few days later after being turned away from a Tijuana hospital, according to Haitian Bridge Alliance.

While the U.S. at this month’s Summit of the Americas promised to take in more Haitian refugees, those statements don’t mean much for the reality of those who are already waiting at the United States border to be let in.

News of the two recent deaths has spread throughout Tijuana’s Haitian community, amplifying the fear that most live with in the city where they feel that at any moment, they could be the next victims.

The threat of expulsion

Like many from their country, where a mix of corruption, armed groups and natural disasters have caused thousands to flee, the Archange siblings have been migrating around the Western Hemisphere for years in search of a place where they can live safely.

The older Archange fled Haiti in 2000 after she received threats because she is a lesbian. Her brother had always stood up for her, she said, and the two remained close even after she left. She spent about a decade in the Dominican Republic before moving to Chile — both countries where Haitians in particular have experienced racism and xenophobia.

After receiving threats of his own, her brother joined her in Chile about five years ago.

Eventually, they decided that the only place where they could find refuge was the United States. But a policy known as Title 42 implemented at the beginning of the pandemic has instructed U.S. border officials to keep out asylum-seekers and other undocumented migrants and to expel those who cross without permission either to Mexico or their home countries. Those expulsions happen without allowing migrants access to the otherwise legally required asylum screening process to see if they qualify as refugees if they say they are afraid to go back home.

Though the policy was introduced by the Trump administration and criticized by many experts as xenophobic and unnecessary, the Biden administration argued that Title 42 was needed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and kept the policy in place. When the Biden administration signaled in April of this year that it would end the program, a number of conservative-leaning states sued in federal court, and a judge has ruled that the policy must continue for now.

For Haitians, Title 42 has meant more than 17,700 people expelled from the United States from January 2021 through April 2022, according to the most recent data available from Customs and Border Protection.

It’s not clear from the government data to where these Haitians were expelled, but Witness at the Border, a group of activists who monitor immigration custody flights, noted in a recent report that Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent 36 flights to Haiti in May, tying January with the second highest number that the group has recorded for the country. The highest number was in September 2021, when officials sent 58 flights to Haiti.

In May, Haiti received more U.S. immigration custody flights than any other country, according to the report, which added that the origin city of most of those flights suggests that they were expulsions of recent border crossers. May data is not yet available from CBP.

Frino, 30, said that he’d been attacked twice after being expelled to Haiti last year. The San Diego Union-Tribune is not fully identifying Frino or several other asylum-seekers interviewed for this article because of their vulnerable situations.

He managed to make it back to Tijuana and is now waiting for border policy to change so that he can request asylum.

‘More than you can write’

For Archange, the possibility of being expelled to Haiti is enough to keep her from trying to cross without permission. She’s waiting to be able to request protection at a port of entry.

“If they send me to Haiti, I will be left lifeless,” Archange said.

But waiting indefinitely in Mexico means navigating daily the possibility of becoming a target. Archange, like many in Tijuana’s Haitian community, only leaves the home she shares with her cousin and several other people when she has to.

Many Haitians told the Union-Tribune that they only go out in groups.

“Every month, someone else dies,” said Elie, 39. “They’ve kidnapped many people, as well.”

He recalled being robbed by Tijuana police in March. He said officers stopped him, threatened him and took roughly 5,000 pesos from him — or about $250. That experience is a common one for migrants, particularly Black migrants, because corrupt police know they are vulnerable.

Jean Francois, 33, said that he has been robbed by thieves who targeted him as he was leaving work to walk home. They took 1,500 pesos, or $75, about half a week’s wages, he said.

Many also fear what could happen to them if they get sick or need medical treatment. In addition to Archange and Anselme, whose deaths were marked by inadequate medical care, Haitian Bridge Alliance has paid to bury several others who experienced medical neglect, said Petit-frère. That includes Jennyflor Lefort, an 18-year-old woman who died in March.

Petit-frère said her organization has also had to support Haitians who were injured while working because their employers refused to cover the costs, including for a man whose fingers were severed while cutting nopal.

She said miscarriages are common in the community because of the lack of access to medical care and the mistrust that has developed in the Haitian community toward Mexican doctors. Three women close to her have lost their pregnancies, she said.

“The amount of things that happen to a Haitian in a year here are more than you can write,” said Jean Luis, 42. He’s been trying to get medicine for a problem with his lungs, he said, but so far no one has been willing to help him.

Jean Luis said he’d been living with four other people in a two-bedroom. A few weeks ago, the owner came into the home with a gun and told them they had to leave, he said. The owner said if any of them went to the police, he would kill them.

All of the Haitians interviewed by the Union-Tribune viewed their struggles to survive in Tijuana as a product of racist attitudes in Mexico, a belief buoyed by how difficult it can be for them to find places to live.

Many end up living on the street or, like Jean Luis now, crowding into the apartments of friends.

Taking care

With little support from people outside their community, Haitians in Tijuana have found ways to help each other survive while they wait.

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In addition to Petit-frère, who fields calls day and night from Haitians in distress, Sael, 32, a community volunteer with Defend Asylum, spends his days on the streets in downtown Tijuana, talking with fellow Haitian migrants to find out what they need and how he can help.

Sael, who spent time in Brazil after fleeing Haiti because he was targeted for the work he was doing to try to create positive change in his community, has been in Tijuana for roughly eight months. He speaks Haitian Creole, French, Portuguese and Spanish, and is already working to learn English. When he needs a moment of calm amid the stress of his daily experiences, he listens to Christian music in English.

He lived on the street with his wife when they first arrived in Tijuana before finding a place to rent. He recalled landlords turning him away once they realized that he is Black, and the way one property owner’s face in particular changed when she saw him.

Now that Sael has found a space to rent from a U.S.-based landlord, he takes in other Haitians until they’re able to rent homes of their own.

He shares what little he has. On a recent Thursday, when he stopped in a Haitian restaurant in downtown Tijuana where Archange’s cousin works, he noticed a family of five sharing two plates of food. He knew that was likely the only meal the family would be eating that day. Since Petit-frère had treated him to lunch, he took the money he would’ve spent and bought the family another plate.

He made his way toward a sidewalk near a migrant shelter and primary care clinic that serve as a meeting place for Haitians to share news. On the way, he stopped to check in with a group of men who were eating lunch at another Haitian restaurant.

One of the men said that a restaurant worker had gifted him his lunch because he was recently injured on the job and unable to work. He unwrapped his leg to show the fresh stitches from the incident.

While Sael was there, Samson, 35, approached the group with his pregnant wife and 4-year-old daughter. They’d been living for a week on the streets, Samson told Sael.

Sael called Petit-frère, who came to pick up the family and take them to a shelter. Then, Sael decided to head home before it got too late and the streets grew more dangerous.

Archange is relying on the kindness of her community now, too. She spent all of her savings on her brother’s burial.

But she’s trying to figure out how she can take on the role of caregiver rather than receiver. Since losing her brother, Archange is determined to support her niece, his 4-year-old daughter, who for now is still in Chile.

“He was a beautiful human being. He did everything for his daughter,” Archange said. “He wanted his daughter to grow up feeling like a princess. Now that’s my job.”