Guerrier Antoine traveled through at least 11 countries over the course of nearly a month, braving hostile authorities and violent bandits, being robbed of several years worth of savings, only to end up right back where he started: Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, where he was born.
“We left our families hungry in Haiti to go and look for work and a good life,” Antoine said. “The path has been difficult. Every time we get close, misery catches up.”
Antoine, 43, is just one of thousands of Haitians detained by American authorities at the US-Mexico border and flown home this week.
He landed on Tuesday, he told CNN on Wednesday, smiling bitterly as he railed against the United States.
“When they talk about the USA, they say it is a country with justice. That’s a lie,” he said, sweeping his arm over his head as he emphasized the word “justice.”
‘We have to take care of our family’
Antoine’s odyssey began when he flew south from Haiti to Brazil, but quickly found he was not earning enough money to survive there.
“We Haitians, when we get there… they place us in the worst working conditions,” he said, adding he wasn’t paid enough to sustain himself and send money home to support his family.
“That’s why we try to leave Brazil to migrate to the USA, so we can take care of our family,” Antoine said.
He headed across South America, via Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia toward Central America, facing dangers on the way.
“The trip was really difficult,” he said, describing harassment and worse from the military, police, criminals and people smugglers.
The journey came against the backdrop of a double blow this summer for Haiti, already one of the poorest countries in the world.
First, President Jovenel Moise was assassinated in his bed by gunmen in July. Just over a month later, the Caribbean nation was hit by a devastating earthquake, its second in just over a decade. The August quake left more than 2,200 people dead and worsened endemic problems such as gang violence, poverty and lack of health care.
Antoine’s efforts to escape his country’s misery ended at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico, across the border from Del Rio, Texas.
He was one of thousands of migrants trying to cross the Rio Grande who camped under bridges on the Mexico side of the border.
When he tried to enter the United States, he was seized, he said.
“My legs and waist were shackled with chains and my hands were cuffed,” he said, gesturing toward his legs. “They took me and bound me like a thief, with chains on my feet, chains on my hands, and they put us in prison.”
He says he was deported to Haiti on Tuesday without ever getting the chance to make his case as an asylum seeker.
“These deportations are totally illegal. To become an asylum seeker, I must have a judge to hear me out, I must have access to a lawyer,” he said.
“We never went before a judge to see if we deserve asylum or not,” he said.
US under criticism for border tactics
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the US treatment of Haitian migrants at the border, questioning the legal basis for the deportations and accusing the administration of putting migrants in harm’s way.
The Biden administration is still relying on a Trump-era border policy linked to the coronavirus pandemic that allows border authorities to swiftly remove migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border. In recent days, the administration ramped up those removals and increased the pace of repatriation flights to Haiti. It says it is working to get the situation under control.
Images of Customs and Border Protection agents on horseback on the banks of Rio Grande earlier this week, twirling their horses’ long reins as migrants attempted to wade out of the water, sparked widespread criticism.
“The US deployment of border agents on horseback against Haitian migrants on September 19, 2021, stems from abusive and racially discriminatory immigration policies by the administration of President Joe Biden,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Tuesday.
That’s the day Antoine was deported.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has previously defended the use of horse patrols, but seemed to distance the administration from the images of the CBP agents on Wednesday, saying they “correctly and necessarily were met with our nation’s horror, because they do not reflect who we are as a country.”
On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was temporarily suspending the use of horse patrols in Del Rio.
The same day, the US special envoy to Haiti resigned, citing “the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees.”
Daniel Foote, the diplomat, said in his resignation letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Haiti is wracked with poverty, crime, government corruption and a lack of humanitarian resources.
He said the “collapsed state is unable to provide security or basic services and more refugees will fuel further desperation and crime,” according to a House Foreign Affairs Committee aide who said committee chair Gregory Meeks had received a copy of Foote’s letter.
Amnesty International joined other organizations in attacking the government’s use of a public health law known as Title 42 as the legal basis for the deportations.
A federal judge ruled in September that migrant families could not be expelled based on Title 42, but paused his order for two weeks to give the administration time to prepare. In the interim, the Biden administration has continued to rely on the policy and has appealed the ruling.
One of the lawyers who argued against the policy in court called the continued expulsions “outrageous.”
“Ramping up expulsions after a federal court ruled the Title 42 policy illegal is outrageous,” said Blaine Bookey, legal director at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) and co-counsel in the Huisha-Huisha v. Mayorkas case.
“Sending Haitians back to a place where many will face violence, homelessness, and even death without so much as asking whether they have a fear of return is unlawful and unconscionable.”