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Pushed into the Shadows: Mexico’s Reception of Haitian Migrants

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This report is based on interviews with 25 Haitian men and women between December 2021 and March of 2022. Refugees International conducted initial interviews in person with Haitians in Tapachula, Mexico in December 2021, and then followed up for interviews by phone with the same Haitians and some others between January and March 2022. By then, the interviewees had moved to northern Mexico or crossed the U.S. border and been expelled to Haiti by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Refugees International also conducted 15 interviews, both in person and by phone, with representatives of non-profit organizations and shelters working with Haitians in Mexico (Tapachula, Mexico City, Ciudad Juárez, Matamoros, Tijuana) and the United States (Del Rio, San Antonio, San Diego), as well as with UN organizations including the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Mexican officials from the Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR for its acronym in Spanish) and the National Migration Institute (INM for its acronym in Spanish).

Refugees International uses pseudonyms to protect the safety of individuals interviewed for this report.

Introduction

In August and September 2021, people around the world were shocked by footage of Haitian fathers being pushed down by the Mexican National Guard in southern Mexico and grabbed and chased by U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback in Del Rio, Texas. But Haitian migration to Mexico and towards the U.S. border had been rising long before mid-2021. And, beginning in the fall of 2021, the policies of the Mexican and United States governments shifted towards getting Haitians out of the public eye without concern for their human rights.

Mexico’s incapacity to humanely receive and integrate Haitians is part of a hemispheric failure that stretches back even before the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 that killed more than 200,000 Haitians, rendered 1.5 million Haitians homeless, and created additional reasons for flight. Large numbers of Haitians have been traveling to and through Mexico, especially since 2016, and many of them have spent periods of time in Brazil and Chile. Most Haitians with whom Refugees International spoke in late 2021 and early 2022 fled targeted violence in Haiti. They could not access asylum or regular immigration status, enjoyed few if any social services, and could not obtain dignified work in Brazil, Chile, or Mexico. Several experienced racial discrimination and violence.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, they were blocked from seeking asylum. Many were detained and expelled to Haiti. They have returned to an ongoing humanitarian crisis stemming from political turmoil, gang violence, devastation wrought by natural disasters, widespread food insecurity, and a country with a negligible COVID-19 vaccination rate.

In 2019 and 2020, the U.S. and Mexican governments responded to the migration of asylum seekers, and especially caravans, with practices and policies designed to block and deter with force. When Haitians gathered in Del Rio, Texas, in mid-September 2021, even as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ramped up expulsion flights of Haitians to Haiti, officials of Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) rounded up Haitians who crossed back from Texas into Ciudad Acuna. INM also targeted Haitians for enforcement elsewhere along its northern border and bussed and flew Haitians southward.

This report focuses predominantly on what happened next in Mexico, while also discussing U.S. border and asylum policies (which Refugees International has analyzed extensively elsewhere) and especially U.S. treatment of Haitian asylum seekers in the wake of the well-documented incidents at Del Rio.

From the fall of 2021 through early 2022, Mexico implemented policy changes chaotically and in ways that reveal a disregard for Haitians, especially compared with other populations of displaced people in Mexico. First, in October 2021, the government announced a complicated asylum registration process that was difficult to access, was poorly explained, and required waiting in Tapachula, in southern Mexico, without means of support.

Then, in late November and December 2021, the Mexican government reversed course: rather than preventing Haitians who were seeking asylum from leaving Tapachula, INM began promoting the movement of about 30,000 Haitians northward. Beyond its inhumane and haphazard execution, the policy gave little thought to the ability of Haitians to pursue their asylum cases or to integrate successfully in Mexican cities further north.

In December 2021 and January 2022, the Biden administration used Title 42—a public health authority—to summarily expel from the border to Haiti increasing numbers of Haitians, including families and young children, in contrast to asylum seekers from Cuba or Venezuela. There were 77 flights to Haiti from the U.S. border between early December 2021 through the end of February of 2022, with 4,500 Haitians expelled from mid-December to mid-January alone. Haitians who came north from Tapachula could not seek asylum in the United States and feared crossing the border lest they be sent to Haiti. Thus, in early 2022, Haitians found themselves in insecure limbo in cities in northern Mexico.

These policies reinforced a preconceived view of Haitians as unworthy of refuge. The story of Jean, whom Refugees International met in a stadium in Tapachula in late 2021 and then spoke to by phone in Haiti in March 2022, exemplifies the ways the search for security and dignified life in the Americas is impeded by policies that push Haitians into the shadows. Jean fled violent threats in Haiti in 2017 and was unable to gain secure legal status and means of support in Chile or Mexico. He was summarily expelled by the United States to Haiti, where he is scared to leave his home and does not feel he can remain. “I feel like a person when I talk to you,” Jean told Refugees International, reflecting on how policies have made him feel invisible and less than human. “My story is too much.” (See Jean’s full story on page six).