Additional reporting by With Photos by Leonardo March/The Haitian Times and Farah Javed
When City Councilmember Farah Louis and Rita Joseph, a Democratic nominee for Council, arrived in San Antonio Thursday, they skipped checking into their Airbnb and went straight to the U.S-Mexican border at Del Rio.
They found a shocking site: an encampment of more than 10,000 migrants, many with Haitian roots, seeking asylum. The two Brooklyn politicians, one born in Haiti, the other a child of Haitian immigrants, also encountered some unexpected communication challenges.
“The language a lot of them spoke was Portuguese, Creole for the olders ones, but especially for the younger ones, they spoke a lot of Spanish,” said Joseph. “These people didn’t come directly from Haiti, they came from all over South America to arrive to Del Rio.”
After images of border patrol officers rounding up Haitian migrants on horseback went viral last week, Louis and Joseph consulted with one another — and their mutual pastor — by text. They decided to go where they were most needed.
“This mission that I went on is a mission that God gave me to do. I had to go to Texas,” said Louis, whose Flatbush district includes Brooklyn’s Little Haiti.
The duo on Tuesday shared with THE CITY, in words and images, accounts from their three-day visit to the encampment site, where they sought to give comfort to the migrants — and questioned U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers.
“We need amnesty for these groups. Going back is simply not an option for them,” said Louis, who was joined on the trip by Alix Desulme, head of the National Haitian American Elected Official Network.
On the Move
As overcome with emotion as they were by their initial visit to the border, Louis and Joseph were even more stunned when returned the next day with a small group of attorneys and interpreters to find the encampment had been cleared out.
“When we got there, the place was cleaned, spotless, as if no one was ever there,” said Joseph.
They phoned the mayor of Del Rio’s chief of staff, but she had little information for them.
So Louis and Joseph met up with civil rights activist Tamika Mallory, a lead organizer of the 2017 Women’s March, and others to deliver a U-Haul truck of supplies for the Methodist Church.
Among the supplies Louis and Joseph helped give out to Haitian nationals: baby wipes, diapers, sanitary napkins and baby formula.
“It was for basic needs,” said Joseph. “Remember, under that tent they’re taking a dry shower. Even if they’re washing, there’s no one washing their clothes.”
Seeking a Path to NYC
The early autumn trip from Brooklyn followed a painful summer for members of the Haitian diaspora, 156,000 of whom live in New York City.
Years of increasing gang violence, a hallowed out Parliament and a constitutional crisis culminated in July with the still-unsolved assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Then, on Aug. 14, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake rocked the Caribbean nation.
The majority of Haitian nationals who arrived at the U.S. border this month came from South American countries, where they fled to after another earthquake: the 2010 temblor that ravaged Haiti, killing over 100,000 people.
With many facing a possible return to Haiti, it would be inhumane, Joseph said, “to put them back where there’s not a stable government, there’s not a stable infrastructure.
“They’ve been hit by natural disasters,” added Joseph, who is vying to represent a district that includes East Flatbush and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
Louis hopes that some of the migrants who are allowed to stay will make their way to New York, where, she says, they’ll be welcomed.
“When Haitian national asylum seekers come to New York City, how do we help them?” she said. “I can’t wait for them to get to New York. I need to find out what the issues are so that when they get here, they’re ready to go.”
‘Stop Title 42’
Joseph and Louis are calling for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a pathway to citizenship for permanent residents, Haitian DREAMers and recipients of federal Temporary Protected Status, which allows people from countries in turmoil to live and work in the U.S. for a limited period.
Following the summer earthquake and assassination, the Biden administration extended the date that Haitians could apply for TPS by.
A growing chorus of Haitian-American elected officials and advocates have also been imploring the Biden administration to stop the use of Title 42, a Trump-era rule that allows the country to deport asylum seekers without a hearing due to COVID-related health concerns.
The United States has already deported thousands of Haitian migrants from the latest border encampment. Earlier in the year, the Biden administration already eclipsed the number of Haitian nationals deported by the Trump administration in all of 2020.
In the wake of the images of the agents on horseback, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) came out against the use of Title 42.
“They are fleeing violence and natural disaster and seeking protection in our country,” Schumer said on Twitter. “The Administration must uphold our refugee laws and stop Title 42 deportations.”
‘It’s Very Inhumane’
In New York, Louis has been trying to garner the political power of local elected officials to push the Biden administration to go beyond what she sees as patchwork solutions.
Following the August earthquake, Louis and Joseph organized a news conference outside of Brooklyn’s St. Jerome Church. They encouraged the elected officials who came to do work beyond showing up for news cameras.
“We’ve been using the bully pulpit to share our concerns and what we’re telling the Biden administration to do has been nothing but clear,” said Louis. “The halt of deportations, due process — that narrative is never going to change. It’s always going to be the same until it’s done.”
Haitian New Yorkers who spoke to THE CITY this week said it was discouraging to see the migrants treated — and reacted to — in an unwelcoming manner.
“I think it’s very inhumane,” said Riva Ryan, a 29-year-old immigration attorney at the Caribbean Women’s Health Association. “I think I would personally want to help anyone being detained right now, but I don’t know how to reach out.”