Fleeing Haitian migrants in Puerto Rico find refuge

The precarious 300-mile voyage on the high seas left from an unusual spot, Haiti’s northern coast.

For three days, the 11 men and six women, gripped by fear, huddled together aboard the tiny wooden sloop. With no idea of their final destination, they looked for signs of life but only saw sea and sky, losing hope with every sunset.

“They tell you in two hours you’re going to arrive, in three hours you’re going to arrive, and you still can’t see land. All you see are the days going by,” said 30-year-old John Gabriel, who left behind a 1-year-old son when he fled the northern Haiti city of Milot last month because of the country’s worsening problems. “You get the impression that even the person carrying you doesn’t even know where they are going. Everyone is just praying to God to see a speck of land.”

The group finally landed on Isla de Mona, an uninhabited nature reserve in the Mona Passage, the strait that divides Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. But it wasn’t until after they were discovered, weak and dehydrated, that they realized they were not in Florida or the Bahamas — the usual routes for smuggled Haitian migrants leaving from Haiti’s north coast — but Puerto Rico.

The number of Haitian migrants arriving in Puerto Rico is nowhere near that of the almost 15,000 refugees who captured international headlines in September after attempting to enter the United States at an international border crossing in southern Texas before being deported to Haiti. But a sharp rise in their numbers in this U.S. territory in the past six months is sounding alarms among top island officials.

After 81 undocumented Haitians, including children, were dropped off in a span of 12 days in September, Puerto Rico Secretary of Natural Resources Rafael Machargo wrote to the island’s Federal Affairs Office Director Carmen Feliciano requesting the “presence of Border Patrol” in Isla de Mona. There are no U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents posted in Mona, said an agency spokesman.

“The increase in arrivals to the island in recent days has been significant and constant, which for us is worrisome,” Machargo said in the Sept. 21 letter. “At the moment [the island] doesn’t have the facilities to have these people for days. We also don’t have enough food to give them, on occasions they show up sick.”

The tiny island is a common drop-off point for human smugglers, who also strand Haitian and Dominican migrants on Islote Monito, an even smaller neighboring cliffside cay with no beaches. On Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard returned 77 Dominicans and six Haitians to the Dominican Republic after interdicting two 25-foot and 30-foot makeshift boats in the Mona Passage.

DRPR.jpg
The Coast Guard Cutter Joseph Napier crew transferred 77 Dominican and six Haitian migrants to a Dominican Republic Navy vessel Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, near Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, following the interdiction of two illegal voyages in the Mona Passage near Puerto Rico. Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Between May and October of this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Puerto Rico apprehended 310 Haitian nationals, according to data provided by the agency. In comparison, CBP only detained 22 Haitian nationals in all of fiscal 2020.

A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said he could not confirm Gabriel’s group arrival. But he confirmed that on Oct. 20, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter detected a vessel leaving Isla de Mona after it had dropped off 17 Haitians, which is around the period Gabriel said they were dropped off. Two subjects onboard the vessel were intercepted by Coast Guard, approximately one nautical mile west of the island, the spokesperson said.

CBP officials say they believe the majority of Haitians are traveling from Haiti through the Dominican Republic and then on to Puerto Rico. They travel on yolas, or small wooden vessels, often captained by Dominican smugglers. Some Haitian migrants have told authorities they had lived in the Dominican Republic for several years before risking the voyage.

But lately, authorities are seeing boats arriving directly from Haiti, which is a new trend and a longer trafficking route. One explanation could be that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for migrants trying to leave from the Dominican Republican by sea.

Dominican authorities have intercepted 853 migrants and 139 yolas this year amid growing concern that their nation is increasingly becoming a transit point for Haitians seeking to get to the U.S. via Puerto Rico.

Crises drive migration

The latest Puerto Rico uptick follows a string of crises that have rocked Haiti.

In July, President Jovenel Moïse was murdered in his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince, plunging an already trouble-plagued country into further disarray and uncertainty. Five weeks later, a magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck southern Haiti, killing over 2,200 people and destroying homes, hospitals, schools and churches.

Those crises were followed by the migration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the Oct. 16 gang-orchestrated abduction of 16 Americans and a Canadian, who remain in captivity after nearly three weeks. The ongoing surge in armed gang violence, kidnappings and a life-threatening nationwide fuel shortage are leading Haitians to take greater risks, several migrants interviewed by the Miami Herald said.

“In Haiti, all you see before you is death,” said Gabriel. “When I took the route, I made a choice between life and death. If I had stayed in Haiti, the chances for death would have been higher.”

Historical church provides refuge

In Puerto Rico, Gabriel and the other Haitian migrants being paroled are finding temporary refuge at a historical Catholic church, Iglesia San Mateo de Cangrejos, overlooking a neighborhood that during colonial times was a refuge for Black runaway slaves. The pastel peach-colored church in the middle of San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood is headed by Father Olin Pierre-Louis.

Pierre-Louis, who is Haitian, came to San Juan over a decade ago. In 2009 he became the religious leader of the congregation, which serves Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and the island’s few Haitian residents.

When a magnitude 7.0 quake nearly destroyed Port-au-Prince in 2010, Pierre-Louis found himself traveling to his homeland weekly carrying relief. The migration crisis all were expecting at the time didn’t immediately come.

Then, one day in 2013, Pierre-Louis said he received a call from an acquaintance. U.S. immigration authorities had left 20 Haitians near San Juan’s airport. The priest rented a large vehicle and had them brought to his church. He offered them food, shelter and medical attention.

“And then more and more began to arrive,” said Pierre-Louis, who set up a makeshift shelter with a kitchen and dormitory in the church office.

In the five years after the 2010 earthquake, border authorities operating out of Puerto Rico processed about 1,600 Haitians, according to agency data. Many ended up at the church. After 2015, the number of Haitians intercepted by border agents started to dwindle, some years in the single digits.

“I had about 50 mattresses, but since no one had come, I sent them to Haiti,” Pierre-Louis said.

Then, three months ago, Haitians started showing up again at the church’s steps, said Pierre-Louis, who lost a cousin in the recent earthquake.

Haitians, he said, have now been coming into Puerto Rico in droves. They are arriving with no clothes or belongings, and unvaccinated from the coronavirus, which often leaves Pierre-Louis relying on his own meager funds and that of his parish to help.

The priest estimates that about 80% of Haitians who have come to San Mateo de Cangrejos are from Port-au-Prince. They are young, and come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. He believes Haiti’s raging insecurity is driving the migration.

“The gangs are in Port-au-Prince,” Pierre-Louis said. “They can’t walk outside. They don’t have food. Their parents spend five, seven years paying for their profession. And when they finish, and can’t find work.”

But the voyage is a dangerous one.

“Some [smugglers] throw them in the water,” Pierre-Louis said, “because the one driving the boat doesn’t want the police to catch them. When they reach land, they throw them wherever. Many of them say they almost died.”

No Temporary Protected Status

Last week, Pierre-Louis received a group of five women, some of whom were pregnant. On Tuesday, five men out of the group of 17 were also dropped off. They helped clean up the shelter, overflowing with boxes of mashed potatoes and pitted plums, cans of soup, children’s toys and bags of clothes — donations destined for those still in Haiti.

Ocelito Noël, 30, was among them. He said an uncle paid for the trip after he showed up at his doorstep in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien. He fled there, Noel said, after a group of young men in his Port-au-Prince neighborhood were shot and killed while filming a video with fake guns, reportedly by police.

The incident, which went viral on Haitian social media networks, is being investigated by Haitian human-rights groups, which said accounts vary about the number of youth killed, and the circumstances around the incident.

It was enough, Noël said, to cause him to flee. He said he doesn’t know how much his family paid.

In May, the Biden administration announced that it would allow Haitians already living in the United States to receive Temporary Protected Status, which gives people from countries in turmoil provisional authorization to legally live and work in the U.S. After Moïse’s death, the 18-month benefit was extended to anyone in the U.S. as of July 29, 2021.

Xavier Morales, Chief Patrol Agent of the Ramey Sector, which runs from a station in the northwestern Puerto Rican town of Aguadilla, said some Haitians seeking entry through Puerto Rico erroneously believe they qualify for the policy, which doesn’t apply to those arriving after July 29.

“Most of the Haitian migrants interviewed have stated that they hope to be released into the U.S. once they arrive,” said Morales. “Most of them know they will be returned to Haiti, but they still take the chance.”

Noel said he knows he won’t qualify for TPS, but hopes he is able to remain in the U.S. Like most Haitians who arrive at the church, he plans to travel to the mainland, where he will reunite with family in Miami.

Pierre-Louis, the priest, buys the migrants plane tickets wherever they need to go. One day, he hopes to hear again from the newly arrived Haitians, like he has from others who have found refuge at San Mateo.

“People who came [after the 2010 earthquake] have called me,” he said. “Sometimes they say, ‘Father, thanks to you, I have a car, I have a house. I came here without anything, and if I had stayed in Haiti I wouldn’t have had a future.”

Miami Herald data reporter Rosmery Izaguirre contributed to this story.

This story was originally published November 4, 2021 7:00 AM.

Syra Ortiz Blanes is a Puerto Rican journalist who covers Puerto Rico and Latin America for El Nuevo Herald and Miami Herald through Report for America. She graduated with a master’s degree from the Columbia Journalism School in May 2020. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and others. Syra Ortiz-Blanes es una periodista puertorriqueña. Cubre Puerto Rico y Latinoamérica para El Nuevo Herald y Miami Herald a través de Report for America. Se graduó con una maestría de la Escuela de Periodismo de Columbia en mayo de 2020. Su trabajo ha aparecido en The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, y otros.