With just her knapsack on her shoulders, 27-year old Brigitte Pierre travelled alone in Latin America, across ten countries. She waded through a tropical rainforest in between Colombia and Panama and travelled by boat on the coast of Nicaragua. But this wasn't a summer backpacking adventure. Pierre was one of the thousands of Haitian migrants making the 7000-mile trek across the continent, with their eyes set on the American dream.
Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, thousands fled the country in search of work and better living conditions. Brazil authorized visas for 40,000 and put many to work constructing stadiums for the World Cup and the Olympics. When the
Games ended and the Brazilian economy plummeted, people started heading north. Some, like Pierre, moved to Chile. But when she heard that the US had granted entry to some Haitian migrants under a humanitarian parole provision, she joined those beginning the long journey north.
"If only I was an ant," says Pierre in frustration. She's made it as far as Tijuana, Mexico, but there is now a large wall blocking her from reaching Miami, her final destination.
The hardest part of the journey, she says, was crossing the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia. She waded through water in the swampy rainforest with ten men from Nepal, India, and Cuba. According to Pierre, everyone traveling this brutal path looks out for each other, or, as she laughingly describes, "Different colors, one people."
Before entering the jungle, the people in her group were given three vaccines and told by Panamanian health workers, "If you don't take these, you won't get out of here alive." She says that she saw a handful of human skeletons along the path, but it only fueled her determination to walk faster.
When she arrived in Tijuana in the middle of December, she was a given a date three months down the road to go before US immigration authorities and present her case for humanitarian parole. When asked if she fears incoming president Donald Trump's proposals to tighten immigration policy, she responds, "He also has a heart and has to act kindly with good people."
Pierre is from Cap-Haïtien, a city on the north coast of Haiti, but she has many aunts and cousins who lived in Port-au-Prince and sent money back to the family. While the 2010 earthquake did not affect Pierre's hometown, it levelled parts of the capital and killed her relatives. Their deaths exacerbated an already difficult financial situation and forced her to look for work outside of home.
Now, Pierre's mother cares for her three-year-old son back in Cap-Haïtien; Pierre dreams of bringing him to Florida if she makes it. In the meantime, she works at a pizza shop down the block from her temporary home—a shelter in Tijuana set up to house migrants. She sends part of her earnings to Haiti, saving some for the rest of her journey.
There are over 50 people who sleep on the ground in this small makeshift shelter, including families with young children and babies. Every nook and cranny serves as a bedroom, including a small wedge of space under the stairs. Wi-Fi is the shelter's most important amenity, as it allows people to communicate with family back in Haiti, check in with the family members who are will receive them in the US, and any friends embarking on the perilous South American journey.
Pierre, who is multilingual, previously studied in the Dominican Republic and assists with roll call and other coordination activities. The Mexican shelter workers don't speak French or Creole, and most of the migrants don't speak Spanish.
We are completely overwhelmed.
Up until May of 2016, Tijuana was home to five shelters that housed migrants—largely US deportees, Central Americans, and Mexicans internally displaced by cartel-related violence. Now coordinators estimate that there are over 25 shelters, the majority providing temporary housing to Haitians. Mexico's National Migration Institute calculates that over 16,000 Haitian people passed through Baja California, the state where Tijuana is located, in 2016. Advocates say that over 10,000 more will arrive this year.
The Casa Madre Asunta is a shelter for women and children. In the past, it mainly housed displaced Mexicans fleeing the violence that plagues the southern states of Michoacán and Guerrero. Haitians now make up the most of the residents. Maria Galván, the center's staff social worker, estimates that close to 4,000 people have stayed in the shelter over the past year, the majority Haitian.
"We are completely overwhelmed," Galván says. The shelter normally houses 50 people; there are close to 150 women and children now. She says that they have received little help from Mexican authorities and international NGOs. "It is the people of Tijuana who have really been helping out, volunteering every day, donating food and Christmas presents."
Another Haitian migrant, Gertha Bordeleaus, plays a similar role to Pierre in Casa Madre Asunta. She helps other Haitian women communicate with Spanish-speaking doctors who have volunteered to provide them with treatment. In between appointments, she speaks about the difficulties she, her infant son, and her husband encountered on the difficult journey.
"Nicaragua is hell; you pay $1,000 to cross and when you arrive to Honduras, they send you back to Costa Rica," says Bordeleaus. She said they had to pay smugglers three different times just to make it across this small Central American nation, which is the only one that has completely closed its doors to the influx of global migrants from South America. In Guatemala, she says, a taxi driver armed with a machete robbed her family.
The US has granted humanitarian parole to most pregnant women and women with children who have arrived at the border. The problem is that the father is usually placed into detention and eventually deported back to Haiti. This causes difficulties for the women who have made it to the US. Ninaj Raoul, the executive director of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, says that is difficult for mothers with small children to find work, and they are left with no income if the family's primary breadwinner is detained. Raoul has also seen mothers who were allowed to enter but had planned to settle with their husband's family, creating a difficult living situation once their partner was deported.
"This series of irresponsible government actions has caused the separation of many families, trauma to the men, women and children that took the road to find opportunities to work to support their families," she says.
It doesn't help that US has flip-flopped on immigration policy. Once the numbers of those requesting humanitarian parole began to rise, authorities stopped granting them and instead placed migrants into detention and deportation proceedings.
According to a statement made in November 2016 by Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the government is currently detaining 4,400 Haitian people and has sped up deportations. In that month alone, over 200 Haitians were deported. Previously, the US were removing people on a limited basis, which Raoul says amounted to around 50 deportees a month.
Mexico's government continues to allow Haitians in on a temporary permission form that allows them to stay in the country until they have their interview with US authorities. This allows Haitians to avoid the increasingly dangerous Mexican routes to the US used by Central American migrants. But migrant rights advocates say that the Mexican authorities have not done enough to address what they describe as a growing humanitarian crisis.
"We understand the plight of these folks, we understand they are looking for a better life," says Rudolfo Figueroa, Mexico's top immigration official in Baja California. "However we are not in a position to do much about it because we don't run US immigration policy."
Of the dozen Haitian migrants interviewed for this article, only one expressed any concern that a Donald Trump presidency would make it more difficult for them to be allowed to enter the US.
Raoul asked what Trump could do that would be worse than what Barack Obama has already done. "By frequently shifting the immigration policy and/or practices on Haitian immigrants in the past four months," she says, "the Obama administration has further exasperated a humanitarian crisis, by causing confusion in the process for Haitians at the border for advocates, lawyers, immigrant organizations, refugee organizations, and most of all the Haitian refugees themselves."
Until US immigration policy changes, Haitians like Brigitte Pierre have been left in migratory limbo. Meanwhile, there are thousands more en route in South America, heading towards an increasingly uncertain future.