As President Joe Biden scrambles to deal with 14,000 Haitian migrants who appeared in South Texas seemingly overnight, a bigger challenge may be yet to come. Thousands more Haitians are already on their way via one of the most dangerous journeys in the world, risking their lives to pass through 66 miles of lawless jungle en route to the U.S.
More than 20,000 Haitians are trekking upward through Central America based on numbers from the Panamanian government, which tracks migrants crossing the Darien Gap. The sliver of land connecting Colombia and Panama is a transit point for migrants heading north and also one of the most deadly, marked by drug traffickers, armed guerrillas, and jaguars.
The number of Haitians crossing the Darien Gap has exploded since January, according to the Panamanian statistics, indicating the coming challenge for the Biden administration.
More than 15,000 Haitians were counted at the Panama-Colombia border in August, up from 5,293 in June and just 623 in January. Those numbers don’t include many of their children, who were born in Chile and Brazil and are citizens of those countries.
No one expects the Haitians to turn back, despite President Biden’s attempt to send a message of deterrence by deporting some of those who reached the U.S.-Mexico border to the Caribbean island and expelling others to southern Mexico.
“It’s going to be a hot mess, to put it lightly,” said Caitlyn Yates, a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia who has studied Caribbean migration in Central America. “We are talking about at least 20,000 Haitians making their way right now through Central America.”
President Biden has no good options for dealing with the Haitians who crossed the Darien Gap—or those following behind. Allowing them all into the U.S. is out of the question politically, and could encourage yet thousands more to try to come. And deporting them to Haiti once they reach the U.S. could also backfire, given the political and humanitarian crisis on the Caribbean island following the assassination of its president and a deadly earthquake this summer.
“I think the question is, how is the administration going to engage with Panama and Colombia and maybe other South American countries in addressing this flow?” said Cris Ramón, an independent immigration consultant.
He said the two most likely options are pressuring countries to stop migrants from entering or leaving Central America, or negotiating with South American countries to accept Haitian migrants expelled from the U.S. border.
“Is there a way for the administration to incentivize these countries to take back Haitian migrants?,” Ramón said.
The Haitian population in South America has grown exponentially since 2010. Thousands fled to Brazil after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Still more arrived seeking work in advance of the Olympics and the World Cup. Around 143,000 Haitians lived in Brazil as of 2020, according to the Spanish newspaper El País. But work in Brazil became scarce after those sporting events, and Chile became another top destination, as Haitians could arrive as tourists without a visa.
That changed with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, who imposed strict restrictions on Haitians entering Chile and made it harder for them to obtain legal status. Facing discrimination and racism, many started contemplating migrating once again. Those plans were delayed as countries started closing their borders because of the pandemic.
In the spring and summer, Haitians finally got their chance, as countries began opening their borders again. The Biden administration’s announcement that it was extending temporary protective visa status to Haitians in the U.S. also fueled hope that they, too, would be well-received.
“Every day, Haitians are leaving,” said William Pierre, a Haitian migrant in Chile and spokesman for the roughly 180,000 Haitians living there. “After waiting for four or five years for the government to give them papers, they don’t have any other option but to go somewhere else.”
They’ve been joined by their country folk directly fleeing Haiti. The most common route for those Haitian migrants is to fly to Ecuador, which until May didn’t require a visa for Haitians to enter, and start trekking north.
The Biden administration is using a hodgepodge approach with the Haitians who set up camp in Del Rio, Texas. It’s flown some to southern Mexico, sent others to shelters in Houston, and deported others to Haiti. More than two in three Haitian migrants who’ve been returned are women and children, some just newborn babies, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Many Haitians who reached Texas returned to Mexico of their own accord, fearful of being deported to an island many haven’t lived in for years. The political risk of those expulsions was underscored this week as the U.S. envoy to Haiti resigned in a furious letter that received widespread coverage.
“The people of Haiti, mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances, simply cannot support the forced infusion of thousands of returned migrants lacking food, shelter, and money without additional, avoidable human tragedy,” Daniel Foote wrote.
“The collapsed state is unable to provide security or basic services, and more refugees will fuel further desperation and crime. Surging migration to our borders will only grow as we add to Haiti’s unacceptable misery.”