Thousands of Haitians are indefinitely trapped in Mexico. They face pervasive racism, and many are unable to work, have no access to medical care, and are targets for criminals. Most have arrived in the last year, hoping that the Biden presidency would open up an opportunity for them to finally seek protection in the US.
Those hopes were in vain. Now, Mexico is seeing a sharp uptick in Haitian asylum applicants — a surge it is unequipped to manage — all because the United States has offloaded its immigration responsibilities onto its neighbor.
The Biden administration continues to enforce pandemic-related border restrictions that have kept out the vast majority of asylum seekers, including Haitians; it’s deported nearly 14,000 Haitians since September 2021 despite their country’s political and economic crises. As a result, many Haitians face a difficult choice: Try to cross the US border and risk getting deported to Haiti if caught, or attempt to make a life for themselves in Mexico, at least temporarily.
“Mexico is increasingly going to have to look like at least a long-term stopover point, if not a forever place, because the last thing people want to do is to head back to Haiti after they’ve been on the move for so long,” said Caitlyn Yates, a consultant for the Migration Policy Institute and PhD student studying Haitian migration at the University of British Columbia.
Many of the Haitians currently stuck in Mexico resided in Chile and Brazil for years in the aftermath of a devastating 2010 earthquake, but were driven out by a pandemic-related economic downturn in the region. And in 2021, these Haitians and their Chilean-born children accounted for a record of nearly 59,000, or about 45 percent, of the more than 131,00 asylum applications Mexico received. That represents a tenfold increase in the number of applications from Haitians over the previous year. By comparison, Honduras and El Salvador, two major migrant-sending countries, accounted for about 36,000 and 6,000 applications in 2021, respectively.
The migrant surge could burden a government that was already struggling to process Haitians’ immigration applications and offer them the kind of humanitarian support they need. For example, due to a 2019 deal in which the Mexican government agreed to beef up immigration enforcement on its southern border in order to avert US tariffs threatened by former President Donald Trump, there’s a community of about 3,000 Haitians stuck in Tapachula, a city along Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Haitians apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities have been forced to stay in the city unless they have some kind of legal immigration status, such as asylum, that would allow them to move freely through the country.
Other Haitians have been living in Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, since as early as 2016. In the time since then, many have put down roots, less by choice than by necessity: As of October 2021, there were some 4,000 Haitians living in Tijuana, more than half of whom had secured formal employment in local factories or the service sector.
For Haitians and Black migrants overall, assimilating in Mexico isn’t an easy prospect, however. Getting legal status is a long and arduous process. They may not speak fluent Spanish, though many of them have previously lived in Latin America for years. For those without work authorization, finding employment is a challenge. And they face persistent racism and discrimination.
But the US hasn’t left them with another option.
The US has abandoned Haitian migrants in Mexico
The US, one of the contributors to Haiti’s current political and economic troubles, chose to put Haitian migrants in Mexico in their current predicament.
President Joe Biden did allow more than 100,000 Haitians already living in the US before July 29, 2021, to apply for Temporary Protected Status, which allows them to live and work in the US on a temporary basis. But he has largely pursued a strategy of deterrence and exclusion with respect to Haitian migrants outside US borders, despite the fact that their country is still reeling from President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination and the one-two punch of a 7.2-magnitude earthquake and a tropical storm last summer.
Biden promised to institute a more humane immigration policy than his predecessor, but instead he has clung to pandemic-related border restrictions, known as the Title 42 policy, implemented by the Trump administration last year. Since March 2020, that policy has been used to rapidly expel more than a million migrants, including Haitians, without hearings before an immigration judge.
Along the border, Biden has restarted Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which tens of thousands of migrants were forced to wait in Mexico for their court hearings in the US. Though Haitians have not yet been sent back to Mexico under the new iteration of the program, there is no longer an exclusion for non-Spanish speakers, meaning that they could be subject to the “Remain in Mexico” policy in the future.
The Biden administration briefly paused deportation flights to Haiti in 2021 due to escalating political violence, but has resumed them despite the fact that the situation on the ground hasn’t improved. In just the last month, it chartered 51 deportation flights carrying more than 5,000 passengers.
And it has sought to discourage Haitians from trying to reach the US by boat. Officials have made clear that those who try will be intercepted by the US Coast Guard and will not be permitted to enter the US. Instead, they will either be repatriated back to Haiti or, if they can demonstrate the need for humanitarian protection, resettled in another country.
All of these choices have not just limited the movement of Haitians from Haiti, but restricted avenues by which Haitians trapped in Mexico can legally enter the US.
The US could have made other choices that would have eased the burden on Mexico. For example, the Biden administration could have expanded TPS for Haitians or allowed them to enter the US temporarily on what’s called “parole,” a kind of temporary protection from deportation. It could have ended its deportation flights to Haiti and its restrictive border policies, or at least created broader exemptions to them. Instead, it has dumped its responsibilities to Haitians onto Mexico, which is ill-equipped to give them the kind of support they need.
Mexico isn’t meeting Haitians’ humanitarian needs
Before 2019, Haiti migrants apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities were permitted a brief period to leave the country on their own accord, giving them the freedom to travel north to the US border. But things have changed drastically since Mexico ramped up immigration enforcement on its southern border, and that’s causing problems for Haitians stranded in the country.
Some 3,000 migrants stuck in Tapachula have been living at a campsite in Tapachula’s Olympic Stadium. They have no access to clean water, food, health care, and other basic services, and share only a few portable toilets. And they have reported being mistreated, arrested in violent and arbitrary manners, and robbed of their money and their phones by Mexican authorities.
Many of them have applied for asylum but are living in uncertainty over their cases due to lengthy backlogs at COMAR, the Mexican refugee agency. Though Mexican law requires that their applications be processed in 90 business days or fewer, COMAR has seen record numbers of applications over the last year.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has promised to reduce wait times by streamlining the bureaucracy around the asylum process, but has acknowledged that the government simply doesn’t have the staffing and resources to meet the explosion in need. Haitians, for instance, have reported a shortage of Creole translators to conduct asylum interviews.
Mexico takes a broader view of who qualifies for asylum than the US, but COMAR hasn’t taken into account the kind of generalized violence that currently exists in Haiti when issuing decisions in Haitians’ cases. That has meant that less than a quarter of Haitian applicants were ultimately granted asylum in 2021. And without legal status, Haitians say that they have been barred from accessing basic services and employment.
“During the time we have been here, we have suffered from constant acts of discrimination, xenophobia and racism at the hands of Mexican authorities,” the Association of Haitian Refugees in Tapachula wrote in Spanish in a December letter to Mexican immigration officials. “Frequently, our children are not allowed to attend school, we do not have access to hospitals, we cannot work due to lack of legal documents.”
It’s a similar story in Tijuana. To the extent that there is a support structure for migrants in the city, it has been severely strained amid the implementation of US policies designed to keep them on the Mexican side of the border. That has left Haitians and other Black migrants particularly vulnerable.
A December report by Refugees International that surveyed Haitian migrants in Tijuana found that they were targets for criminals, and had a hard time accessing basic services and finding stable work due to racism and a lack of legal status. Though some have been in Tijuana for so long that they have married Mexicans and now have residency, others came to Tijuana on temporary transit visas that have now expired, or were given humanitarian visas while awaiting decisions on their asylum cases that they can’t renew.
According to the report, Haitians said that they did not go out at night for fear of attack or theft. A total of 15 Haitian people have been killed in Tijuana since 2016.
Without work authorization, Haitians relegated to the informal labor market saw many job opportunities dry up and experienced exploitation during the pandemic. They have reportedly suffered abuse from landlords, with one migrant recounting how she and her husband were evicted after she asked for proof of the water bill. Without stable employment, the vast majority of those surveyed were worried about making rent. And Refugees International found they were half as likely to be treated for illness as compared to Central American migrants, possibly due to language barriers.
These reports show the Mexican government has proven incapable of catering to the humanitarian needs of Haitian migrants. The US does have the resources necessary to do so, as shown by Biden’s TPS extensions. Rather than utilize those resources, the US has managed to evade any responsibility for Haitians trapped in Mexico.