TIJUANA, Mexico – A desperate and dehydrated Berline Monelus was deep in the swampy, snake-infested jungle after eight days of walking when the skies opened up. Her boyfriend was moving quickly, carrying their 1-year-old daughter, Thaina, while Monelus lagged behind, losing sight of them.
She reached a river crossing.
“I didn’t know which way go to,” she said. She stood with her 3-year-old son in the rain-soaked wilderness bordering Panama and Colombia and began to cry.
As she stared into the rushing waters, another migrant on the same northern path walked up and volunteered to ferry the boy across on his back. Monelus, 24, handed the child over, instructing Jhonslay Joseph Jr., to hold on tight. It was the last time she saw him.
His last words still ring in her ears. “All I heard was Mamae, Mamae,” — Portuguese for “Mama” — she said, as the river’s deceptively strong currents loosened his tiny grip, sweeping him off the stranger’s back and swallowing him whole.
She nearly drowned, too, but another traveler pulled her to safety. For two days, she refused to leave, searching the river’s edge for her son. She found another body, but it wasn’t Jhonslay. After the second day, members of the group who had stayed to console her forced her to keep moving.
“I didn’t know the route had this kind of risk,” Monelus said, holding back tears as she sat in a Mexican hotel room not far from the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, two days before her appointment with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Had I known, I never would have taken it.”
After decades of crossing the Florida straits on a 700-mile trip in rickety boats to flee poverty and political turmoil, Haitians have carved out a new route to get to the United States. It’s a staggering 7,000-mile journey that starts in Brazil — which opened its doors to Haitians after the devastating 2010 earthquake — and cuts through South and Central America, traversing 11 countries and costing thousands of dollars a head in fees to smugglers — coyotes in Spanish, passeurs in French — to find the way across closed borders.
In recent months, an increasing number of Haitians have been attempting the trek — by minivan and bus, in overcrowded canoes and on foot — desperate to get to the U.S. border. Mostly young and despairing over the lack of progress in Haiti, they are looking north for hope, joining thousands of violence-fleeing Hondurans and Salvadorans, asylum-seeking Cubans and undocumented migrants from Congo, Mali and as far away as Nepal along a circuitous route to San Diego, Calif.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana told Congress on Sept. 22 that 40,000 Haitians are in transit. So far, nearly 5,000 have made it, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said.
Those who reach the San Ysidro Port of Entry a few miles from downtown San Diego wind up in immigration detention centers first, and then — until last week’s shift in U.S. Haiti deportation policy — are usually paroled into the country with temporary papers. Even so, they prefer the uncertainty of life in the United States to anything in Haiti or Brazil.
“The document you have states that at any time, any decision can be taken,” said Ones Alcenat who, like most of the arriving Haitians, headed to Florida after spending five days in immigration lockup and another 15 at a San Diego-area church, Christ United Methodist & Ministry Church in Normal Heights. “Being on American soil is a dream for everyone.”
No turning back
The trip through the Americas is a treacherous one. Migrants can spend anywhere from four to 20 days walking through the dense jungle, where Monelus says she spent more than a week without food because her provisions ran out.
More than two dozen migrants interviewed by the Miami Herald in Tijuana, San Diego and Miami say they employ both high- and low-tech skills to find their way across borders, over mountains and past state security forces. Social media, including Facebook and the WhatsApp messaging system, help them find information from others who have gone ahead. But the most basic systems work, too: Remnants of clothing tied to trees along the way help them locate the trail in the wilderness.
They also admit to hiring the smugglers who stalk jails, refugee camps and border crossings. They promise safe passage for a negotiable but hefty fee. The trip can last two to four months and end up costing anywhere from $2,500 to $13,000, depending on negotiating skills, migrants said.
Monelus, who spent four months to reach Mexico, says she lost a total of $2,350 from three failed attempts to cross Nicaragua. On the fourth, she hired a smuggler for $1,000. He got her to Honduras on foot and then on horseback. Monelus’ mother paid for both trips, the first to Brazil five years ago and the most recent one to get to California, by selling a plot of land and a family store, Monelus said.
When she finally made it out of the jungle and into Panama City, Monelus called home. She told her parents what happened to her son. They cried. They had never met the boy.
“I didn’t feel I had the strength to go on,” she said, but they urged her. “My father said to continue on. Returning to Haiti wouldn’t be good for me.”
Haiti’s economy has been in a sharp decline since 2014. The World Bank is predicting economic growth to be at less than 1 percent this year, citing lower investments, the uncertain political environment and struggling agriculture sector after a severe drought.
Foreign aid has plummeted, too, from more than $2 billion in 2011 to barely $250 million this year. The domestic currency also has taken a hit, and the country’s public debt has swelled. Foreign investments have dropped to about $100 million for each of the last four years.
Facing this dismal reality, Haitian families on the island are bankrolling the aspirations of those brave enough to try their luck in other countries. They take out loans at exorbitant rates, put homes up as collateral and sell land and livestock. They see the money as an investment like a college education, hoping it will pay dividends one day.
Mental and physical journey
For most, the journey begins in Brazil, once a rising Latin American power that gave Haitians special residency after the earthquake but now a country in recession.
“Every day, Haitians are leaving,” said Joanes Decembre, a father of five who moved to Brazil in 2013 and sent for his wife 11 months later.
Decembre, 39, had hoped to make a life in Brazil, and even helped form an association on behalf of Haitians in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil. But then the economy tanked. Work became harder to find and paid a lot less.
Decembre decided to make his way north. He raised the money by taking a loan against his house in Haiti, selling livestock and collecting unemployment from his job. But Decembre’s troubles began quickly. In Ecuador, he was threatened with deportation after authorities refused to recognize a transit document he bought for $20 in Peru. In the jungle, he got lost, crossing “what looked like the same river must be 1,000 times.”
He was in a group of 50 who decided to make their way north without paying indigenous tribes along the way. Eventually, they noticed the tied-on clothing markers to guide them.
But it took mental toughness and, sometimes, physical strength. When his wife, Ginette Victor, told him she couldn’t go on, he wouldn’t let her give up. “She was in front and I was behind pushing her. At one point, I put her on my back to get through a river.”
The jungle is test of will for migrants, a place where Haitians on the journey have witnessed both kindness and selfishness. Those unable to keep up — often young mothers like Monelus — sometimes are left behind. Others times, unity is strength.
During Decembre’s trip, the group reached a mountain crossing but Victor, his wife, was too dehydrated to keep walking. A father carrying an infant pulled out a baby bottle, added powdered milk and water from his supply, mixed it and gave her and nine others a drop.
The couple eventually made it through Nicaragua in the back of a cement truck, paying $1,800 to be dropped off at Honduras’ border. They eventually made it to San Diego, but Decembre’s funds have run out and he’s not sure if he’ll be able to send his kids to school.
“There are only three options when you take this route,” he said, “Misery, arrival or death.”