PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — He crossed the Mexican border into Texas only two weeks ago, joyous at the prospect of building anew in the United States. Now part of the first wave of deportees rapidly ejected by the Biden administration amid a fresh surge at the border, Johnson Bordes, 23, stepped off a Boeing 737 on Sunday and into the Haitian capital, terrified by a city torn apart by violence in a homeland he could barely remember.
Like many deportees arriving on charter flights at the airport in Port-au-Prince, 15 minutes from neighborhoods controlled by brutal armed gangs, Bordes’s family left Haiti in the great migration after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. He was 12 when they left, first for the Dominican Republic, then on to Chile, where he was living with his mother and brother when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Encouraged by relatives in the United States, the family set out on a 4,500-mile trek to the U.S. border — never imagining the road would lead back to the devastated country they left more than a decade ago.
“How could they bring us back here?” he asked. This is inhumane. I don’t even know where we are going to sleep tonight.”
He mingled with other confused deportees, many of whom hadn’t seen Haiti in years and now spoke Spanish or Portuguese better than Haitian Creole. The Washington Post was told by several families that they weren’t told when they would be deported to Haiti.
“If Biden continues with these deportations, he’s no better than Trump,” Bordes said. I’m worried about my safety. I don’t even know this country anymore.”
They began landing Sunday in a nation that some describe as Somalia of the Caribbean — a failed state suffering a humanitarian emergency that critics say is too dangerous and unstable for the thousands being deported.
Recognition of the conditions led the Biden administration as recently as May to grant temporary protected status to tens of thousands of undocumented Haitians in the United States. Officials cited “serious security issues, social unrest and an increase in human right abuses, crippling poverty and lack of basic resource” as reasons for the decision.
Since then, conditions in Haiti have deteriorated sharply — leading critics to describe the deportations now as contradictory.
Some here describe the large-scale deportations back to Haiti as something they might have expected under President Donald Trump, who was dismissive of Haitian immigrants. It was even worse because it happened under President Biden they claimed.
“It’s shocking,” said Ralph P. Chevry, a board member of the Haiti Center for Socio Economic Policy in Port-au-Prince. While I understand the U.S. need to defend its borders, the current situation in Haiti means that this is not the right place for anyone to be sent. The Central Bank is out of money. The country is being overthrown by gangs. Kidnappings continue to rise.
“I wouldn’t say it’s criminal, but what the United States is doing is at the very least inhumane.”
U.S. officials have countered that strong action is needed to deter a surge of desperate migrants traversing the Mexican border into the Texas town of Del Rio. Many of these migrants are from Haiti, who fled their country many years ago.
Haitian authorities said they would do what they could for the deportees, but pointedly said they were being repatriated against their will.
“These people do not accept the forced flight back to Haiti,” Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, head of Haiti’s migration office, told reporters in Port-au-Prince on Sunday, adding that his team expected flights to ramp up to as many as six per day by Tuesday.
“For these people, Haiti is hell,” he said.
In an email, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the deportation of 327 people and said “these flights will continue on a regular basis.” The agency did not comment on whether the Haitian deportees had been informed of their repatriations, or whether Haiti was safe enough for deportees.
In comments to CNN on Sunday, however, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the deportations, saying the damage from the recent earthquake had been “rather geographically limited” and that an analysis of the situation on the ground had determined that “country conditions” allowed for the repatriations.
A DHS official told The Post on Friday that the deportations would start with up to three flights per day.
“We have reiterated that our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey,” spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa wrote in an email. “Irregular migration poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of border communities and to the lives of migrants themselves and should not be attempted.”
Giuseppe Loprete, Haiti mission chief for the International Organization for Migration, said 327 Haitians arrived Sunday on three flights from the United States, with an estimated 300 per day to follow in the coming weeks. The organization is bracing for 14,000 returnees from the United States, Mexico and elsewhere, a sharp increase from the 6,000 Haitians who had been sent back since mid-March of 2018.
He said the new arrivals were being given the equivalent of $50 in cash and another $50 in cellular phone transfers (they’re provided with a cellphone if they don’t have one), a hot meal, hygiene kits and psychological counseling.
“When they realize they are coming back to Haiti, it’s really difficult for them,” Loprete said. “Some of them, they don’t have any contacts anymore with their families, or they live in areas that are now no longer accessible because of the earthquake or the gangs.”
In tweets late Saturday, Prime Minister Ariel Henry — under fire at home, but effectively backed by the United States — said in French that “we are very concerned about the extremely difficult conditions in which several thousand of our #compatriots are living on the US-Mexico border.”
In Haitian Creole, however, he sounded a note of commiseration.
“We must unite to give the #country a chance for our brothers and sisters to cease these kinds of humiliations,” he said. I feel their pain and welcome them. Home is home.”
Many of those who arrived Sunday described their deportations as happening at breakneck speed.
Sonia Piard, 43, arrived in Texas last Monday, after a weeks-long trip by bus and foot from Chile. She and her husband were employed in construction for six years there before her children and grandchildren joined them three years ago. They sold their furniture and dug into their life savings to finance the $10,000 trip. Five-day trekking through the jungle was the most strenuous.
“We saw people drown in the river,” she said.
Piard, her husband and their children, ages 10, 8 and 7, had spent five days sleeping under a bridge in Texas when U.S. authorities rounded them up on Friday. She said they were provided aluminum sheets and a place to sleep on a cement floor at the detention center.
On Sunday, she said, her family was taken to a plane but not told where it was going. The Post interviewed two other families who said that they weren’t informed about the destination of their plane. One family claimed they were informed they would be transferred to another Florida detention facility.
Piard said her family’s home in Les Cayes on Haiti’s southwestern peninsula collapsed in last month’s earthquake. They were unable to find a bed in capital because gangs controlled the roads connecting Port-au-Prince with the south of the country.
She said she and her family decided to travel from Chile to Texas because they’d heard that “President Biden was letting people in.” She said Sunday she felt disillusioned, as if she and her family had been “kidnapped to be sent back to Haiti.”
“They did not even tell us what they were doing,” she said, in tears. They called our names and said that they were taking us to another place. It was not known that we would be returning to Haiti. We were not told by anyone that we would be returning to Haiti. Now we need to return to Chile. But, now there is no money and no place to live. What will become of my children?”
“How could Biden do this to us?” she asked.
Faiola reported from Miami. This report was contributed by Nick Miroff from Washington.