PORT-AU-PRINCE—It was not the homecoming “Philippeson” wished for.
Four years after leaving Haiti in search of a better life, the 26-year-old man was heading back onboard an iAero Airways aircraft, chartered by the U.S. government. His hands were cuffed, his feet and waist weighed down in chains and shackles.
All he could think about were the events that led to his unfortunate predicament and the unknown that awaited him in the land of his birth. Turning to an agent on the expulsion flight that had left Laredo, Texas, that morning, he said, “I am not a criminal.”
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Since September, when thousands of desperate asylum-seekers, many of them Haitians, crossed the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, to camp out under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, the Biden administration has rapidly expelled over 24,000 Haitians by air back to Haiti, a country many hadn’t lived in for years, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration.
Philippeson, who found himself aboard the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) charter flight a few days after illegally crossing into the U.S. in January at the very same spot in Del Rio, is among them.
“My destination was never Mexico,” said the young man, who agreed to share his experience with a Miami Herald reporter on the condition that his real name not be used because he has not given up on his attempt to get into the U.S. “That is the sole reason I got deported. I said I did the route in order to achieve the American dream, and I didn’t come this far to stop.”
Federal agents at the United States’ southwest border have had more than one and a half million encounters with people coming across the border without documents since October. In the case of Haitians, the majority have been quickly expelled under a Trump-era pandemic-emergency rule known as Title 42.
The expulsion isn’t stopping Philippeson. Since his return to Haiti, he has applied for a new Haitian passport. His plan is to then apply for a visa to go to the Dominican Republic, and then fly back to Mexico. Philippeson doesn’t have a job and with all of his money spent on the failed journey to the U.S. border, he admits he’s broke.
The hardest thing about being back in Haiti, where he is still awaiting his new passport more than three months after filling out the paperwork, is the feeling of failure. And as bad as his experience was in Mexico, where he could not work and had nowhere to sleep, it is still better than being in Haiti, Philippeson said. It is also much closer to the U.S.
“Perhaps I will have another opportunity,” he said, conceding that the dream to live in the United States “is still there. I only lack the means.”
‘MY LIFE IS IN DANGER HERE’
The university educated Philippeson, who is fluent in five languages, is part of a generation of Haitians who have migrated to Brazil, Chile and other South American nations following their country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. After years of living in South America, they decided to make their way north in a treacherous 7,000-mile trek through the roadless jungles of Central America to Mexico in the hopes of living in the U.S.
Having now been expelled back to Haiti, most have one goal: getting back out.
“I am a Haitian. There is no better place for me to stay, to work and for my mother to enjoy the fruits of my labor,” Philippeson said on a recent afternoon in the capital. “But my life is in danger here.”
Like the more than 6,000 Haitians who have taken to the sea to reach Florida or Puerto Rico in the past few months—in what has become the largest Haitian exodus by boat since 2004—Philippeson sees no future in his homeland. There are days he’s so frustrated, he says, he thinks of taking a plate and spoon and going to a government ministry shouting, “I’ve come to get my share.”
“I feel like asking the state, ‘What should I do?’ Someone who has spent all of his life going to school, who hasn’t taken up arms, what do you want me to do?” he said.
His parents, who eked out a living as street vendors, sacrificed all they had to educate him, he says, despite having six kids. Haiti, he laments, does nothing to encourage young people like him to stay.
Before leaving Haiti in 2018, Philippeson says he was enrolled at a university studying accounting and languages with the goal of graduating and then going to work.
One of his uncles, who believed his nephew was not living up to his potential, proposed that he go to Chile. At the time, the South American nation had become a destination for Haitians after they realized they could legally enter as tourists as long as they had proof of hotel reservations, $1,400 in pocket money and a return ticket.
Without hesitation he accepted, Philippeson said, not because it’s where he ultimately wanted to live, but because he saw life would be better there than in Haiti.
“I always had it in my head that the route of Latin America was a means for me to get the support I needed to reach where I ultimately wanted to go: the American dream,” he added.
A recent national survey by the country’s Citizen Observatory for Institutionalization of Democracy found that 82% of Haiti’s nearly 12 million people would migrate if they had the chance. The deep disenchantment with the country and democracy has been shaped by the volatile nation’s downward spiral over the past six years.
The survey also found that 83% of respondents think the country’s politicians care little about their fate, while nearly 95% believe they lie to get elected.
Every day, Philippeson said, Haiti becomes increasingly unrecognizable. What once was an uneventful four-hour bus ride to the capital from his rural home in Cavaillon, a hamlet in the quake-ravaged southwest, now includes a series of telephone check-ins with people along the volatile, gang-controlled route to see if it’s safe to travel.
The gang violence, kidnappings, and widespread despair intensified after last July’s assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Higher education, once a source of pride among parents who spent most of their meager incomes on schooling, is no longer a sure bet.
“Haitian education tells you that once you’re finished with your studies, certain professions are not for you,” Philippeson said. “And then when you get to a neighboring country you realize that the Haitian education was not worth much.”
Once in Chile, the only job available to him was as an unskilled laborer on a farm. He began questioning his parents’ emphasis on white-collar professional jobs that in Chile—and later in Brazil—were out of his reach, and the only jobs to be had were for the ones he was raised to believe were beneath him.
Thinking back to the welding and painting jobs that were the only source of employment available to Haitian migrants in Chile and Brazil, Philippeson said perhaps if the emphasis in Haiti were on employment as opposed to a profession, he would “have learned masonry. I would have learned painting, I would have learned welding.”
“They do brain washing in the Haitian education system. That’s why too when we go to these countries, we suffer a lot,” he added.
Three months of a hardscrabble life in Chile led him to move to Brazil. From there, he made the decision to sell everything he had and head north. He left Brazil on Sept. 13, 2021. After crossing 11 countries and nearly drowning in the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, he reached Tapachula, Mexico, just over the border with Guatemala. He had been traveling for 45 days.
BRAIN DRAIN EXODUS
Over the past decade, an increasing number of Haitians have forged a path through Latin America to reach the southern border of the U.S. Thousands are currently living in Reynosa, Mexico, hoping to cross over into McAllen, Texas.
Young and mostly male, these Haitian migrants are better educated than their predecessors, and they are part of an accelerating brain drain.
Louis Herns Marcelin, a Haiti-born social scientist at the University of Miami who tracks Haitian migration through South America, said that over the past decade Haiti has chased away its educated youth at a surprising rate.
According to an ongoing large-scale study being conducted by Marcelin and other researchers in Haiti and Brazil, individuals migrating between 2015 and today from Haiti are between the ages of 18 and 39; 80% of the ones between ages 18 and 29 have a high school level of education, and 20% have some form of higher education.
“How can a country rebuild itself if 80% of its educated young workforce are among those leaving the country?” said Marcelin, who founded the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development in Haiti. “A country cannot rebuild itself, if it doesn’t have the human power, educated, skilled youth to help implement the kind of policy recommendations that will emerge from any kind of analysis of social issues in Haiti.”
While Haiti’s instability is largely to blame for the desire of its youth to leave, it is not the sole culprit, Marcelin adds. Since the 2010 quake, skilled and educated Haitians have been “targeted” by state-sponsored initiatives led by Canada, which sought out French-speaking health professionals, and Brazil, which recruited skilled laborers to help build stadiums in preparation for its hosting of the World Cup and the Olympics.
“Most of the people who left Haiti were people who, despite the fact that we don’t have a good education system, were educated in Haiti, who had access to education,” Marcelin said. “Most of these youth who went to Brazil and later on to Chile, Ecuador, and so on were people who had at least some secondary education, completed secondary school, or had a post-secondary education.”
The effects, he said, remain apparent today as Haitians, citing racism in Chile and hard economic times in Brazil, sell everything they have and gamble on a journey whose ending may not be what they hope.
When Philippeson decided to head for the U.S. with an older brother, he didn’t think they would end up back in Haiti, much less in shackles. Guided by misinformation and the lure of life in the U.S., they arrived at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico on the other side of Del Rio, Texas.
Overflowing with Haitians months earlier, the crossing was now empty. Concluding that most migrants had become afraid of the area after September’s influx, the brothers also wrongly assumed there would be less oversight by U.S. border agents.
Soon after stepping into the cold waters of the Rio Grande at about 6 a.m. in January, the two were spotted by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, who immediately took them into custody.
In detention, Philippeson said, he was asked if he had family in the United States, to which he answered yes and provided names, addresses and telephone numbers. The question made him hopeful. He remained so even after his photo and fingerprints were taken and he was transferred from one holding cell to another in Laredo.
Fellow migrants warned him, “Once you are here, my friend, there is no hope. This is the deportation center,” but he continued to believe he might be released.
“Not one agent said they were going to deport us, not even as a joke,” Philippeson said. “Every time you asked, they told you to wait.”
As he watched the trickle of migrants joining him in the cells, he concluded, “Every day Haitians are crossing the border.”
His expulsion to Haiti later in January, he said, has resulted in what he calls a social death.
“People don’t acknowledge you as if you are anything anymore, because you are beneath everybody in the community,” said Marcelin. “When you return after failing, it’s like you’re dead.”
Philippeson says the way he was returned to Haiti is one of the worst things that could have happened.
“I returned to Haiti as if I were a drug dealer, someone who committed a crime: chains on my hands, chains on my feet, chains around my waist,” he said. “I’m not a drug dealer. I am not a rapist. […] It’s one of the biggest defeats of my life, the way in which the Americans transported me back home.”