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For many Haitian migrants, reaching the U.S. border took years of travel

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Let's look now at the long and dangerous treks Haitians have made hoping for better lives in the United States. The migrants camped under the Del Rio International Bridge, some chased by Border Patrol on horseback - they hadn't just recently fled Haiti. For many, reaching the U.S.-Mexico border was the culmination of years of travel. We're going to look at that journey now with three correspondents who have been covering this for years. John Otis joins us from Colombia, along with NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico and Philip Reeves in Brazil.

And Phil, I want to start with you because you're at sort of the early point in this trip that many Haitians take on their way to the border - Brazil. Why do they make what seems like such a roundabout trip toward the U.S.?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a lot of Haitians came here to find work. Brazil's huge, so it's easy to get in. Some entered legally. Some entered illegally. That influx has continued. We don't know exactly how many Haitians are here. Some estimates are more than 100,000. Life has got tougher in Brazil, partly because of the pandemic. So now people are beginning to leave this high unemployment, high inflation. And the word has gone around the Haitian community that under the Biden administration, it'll be easier to get to the U.S. And so a lot of them have packed up and headed north.

FADEL: So what you're describing is the people that are getting to the U.S. now may have started their journey years ago and settled in other countries first. Carrie, you cover Haiti. What are some of the factors that are driving this decade of migration?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The conditions in Haiti have been deteriorating for years. Remember, this is the poorest country in the hemisphere. There was a large exodus, like Phil said, after the devastating 2010 earthquake. But there are so many more factors. Haiti is very susceptible to climate change, with increasingly more frequent and devastating hurricanes hitting there. It's a haven for drug trafficking. Criminal gangs control large parts of the country. There was also another major earthquake this summer in the south. And on top of all of that, there was the assassination of the president, which has just thrown the country into greater political turmoil than usual. Last week, when I was up at the U.S. border, I met Jean Charles Baptiste (ph). He's 29. He left Haiti four years ago and went to Chile. And we were speaking in Spanish.

JEAN CHARLES BAPTISTE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He said he left Haiti out of fear. And since being away, he said he's gotten used to getting food easily and having electricity every day. He said the world knows what's happening in Haiti, and he just can't go back there. I met him as he was released into the U.S. and he was boarding a bus to Houston. He had been part of the 15,000 people camping under that international bridge in Del Rio, Texas. And he was with his small daughter and his wife and was told to report to an immigration office within 60 days.

FADEL: So John, you're in Colombia, which is perhaps the most dangerous part of this trek. Tell us about that. What is it like?

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Yeah, it's really tough. It really is the hardest leg of the journey. The migrants have to travel on foot for up to 10 days through the Darien Gap, and this is this very thick jungle separating Colombia and Panama. I recently tagged along with some of the migrants, and it was really pretty chaotic. And here's what it sounded like as they tried to forge a rushing river.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE YELLING, RIVER RUSHING)

OTIS: Now, some of them were balancing babies in their arms, carrying overloaded backpacks. A few of them became so exhausted, in fact, that they collapsed on the ground. They started throwing clothes and food into the river to lighten their loads. Besides drowning, they can get lost. They can get bit by snakes. The jungle's also full of drug traffickers and bandits who sometimes rob, rape and even kill migrants. But one of the Haitians I spoke with, Justin Le Fleuris, told me he's OK with all of these risks if he's able to make it into the U.S.

JUSTIN LE FLEURIS: I don't think that's going to be easy. But if you got your dream, you have to fight for your dream. You have to fight for your dream.

OTIS: Now, this whole treacherous jungle crossing could be avoided. Colombia and Panama have talked of setting up a boat service to transport migrants between the two countries. But so far, nothing's happened.

FADEL: So John, travelers in these numbers can't be a secret to authorities. Have the Colombian or Panamanian governments taken any steps to regulate this or assist these people?

OTIS: Well, you know, the Haitians, they travel through most of these countries illegally because they lack visas. And, you know, so they're having to sneak through. But at least here in Colombia, they're not getting arrested or deported. And that's largely because that would be a very huge expense for the Colombian government. So instead, the Colombians are simply kind of allowing the Haitians to be on their way to Panama, which is the next country on the way north. The problem right now, though, is that the Panamanians are only allowing 500 Haitian migrants per day into their country. So now there's this huge bottleneck of about 20,000 Haitians in a Colombian town near the Panamanian border. Many are stuck there for up to a month as they wait for permission to leave.

FADEL: So you've each described different parts of this journey. Let's turn to how they're treated along the way. Phil, how are Haitians received in Brazil?

REEVES: Well, some Haitians have been able to get registered here under humanitarian laws, which allows them to work legally. But undocumented Haitians can face serious problems in Brazil. You hear about cases here of them taking jobs as laborers on farms, for example, and then being horribly exploited - for example, being made to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week for nothing. Most Haitians don't speak any Portuguese when they arrive, which means they are vulnerable to abuse - and also that they tend to be somewhat isolated from the mainstream. And there is also racism here. Luckner Guerrier is a Haitian who lives in Rio and helps the Haitian community here. He says racism can be a problem when Haitians compete for jobs with Venezuelans, who've also been arriving here in significant numbers in recent years.

LUCKNER GUERRIER: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: So he's saying, if a Haitian and a Venezuelan were competing for the job, even though the Haitian is far better qualified, the Venezuelan will often get the job, and he believes that's due to skin color.

FADEL: Now, Carrie, you were recently in Haiti and with migrants at Del Rio, so you've seen their journey and the homeland they're trying to flee. What are the prospects for Haitians seeking a better life?

KAHN: I think the prospects are dim, but tens of thousands are still trying, as we've heard. And human smugglers are telling them, now's the time to go. Here in Mexico, the government has begun deporting Haitians. Seventy were flown home this week. Mexico's also telling Haitians they can apply for refugee status here, but that's tough because the tiny refugee agency is overwhelmed and understaffed. And Haitians charge the government here with discrimination against them, say they move even slower to process their claims. Those intent on going to the U.S. also have huge hurdles. Haitians have one of the lowest asylum acceptance rates in the U.S., too.

And the Biden administration is sending out mixed messages. It just extended temporary protection against deportation to Haitians already in the U.S., while also deporting thousands back to Haiti who are apprehended at the border. And then they're also letting some Haitians in. More than 12,000 of those who made it to that border encampment in Del Rio, Texas, were just released into the U.S. So if you're a Haitian contemplating what to do now, whether you're in Haiti, South America or Mexico, it's confusing. What messages do you believe in? How do you decide to stay where you are or head north?

FADEL: That's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City, Phil Reeves in Rio and John Otis in Bogota.

Thank you all so much.

REEVES: Thank you.

KAHN: You're welcome.

OTIS: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.