By Naomi Klein / Source: The Intercept / November 22, 2017
This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Read the second part next Tuesday in The Dawn News.
Near the town of Lacolle, Quebec, just across the border in upstate New York, a cluster of blue-trimmed beige trailers has just arrived to provide temporary shelter for the unending wave of refugees, many of them from Haiti, who walk up on foot from Trump’s America. Inside the new heated trailers are beds and showers, ready to warm up frozen hands and feet, while processing and security checks take place.
Last winter, after Donald Trump’s inauguration, there was a sharp increase in “irregular border crossings” all across the Canada-U.S. border: people sidestepping official ports of entry and trying to reach safety by walking through the woods, across clearings, or over ditches. Since January 2017, Canadian authorities intercepted nearly 17,000 migrants from the U.S. (and others crossed without detection). The applications for asylum begin once migrants are safely in Canada, rather than at border crossings, where they would likely be turned back under a controversial cross-border agreement between the two countries.
The risks of the irregular crossings are especially great in winter, and this one looks to be a cold one. Last year, during the coldest months, there were wrenching reports of frostbitten toes and fingers having to be amputated on arrival in Canada. Two men from Ghana lost all their fingers after they walked across to Manitoba — one told reporters he felt lucky that he had managed to keep one of his thumbs.
Despite these hazards, there is every reason to believe the flow of migrants making their way to those trailers near Lacolle will continue even as the temperature drops. Indeed, the luggage-laden foot traffic may well speed up in the coming weeks and months.
That’s because on Monday, November 20, the Trump administration made good on its threats to remove more than 50,000 Haitians from a program that currently allows them to live and work legally in the United States. In 20 months, they will be stripped of all protection and subjected to deportation. The administration has already announced it will be kicking Nicaraguans out of the same program and has suggested it may do the same to Hondurans next year. In September, Sudanese people got word that they’re getting the boot as well. Salvadorans are expected to be next.
The program, called Temporary Protected Status, gives special legal status to people from select countries that have been hard-hit by wars and natural disasters while their homelands recover (they need to be in the United States when the disaster strikes). After its devastating 2010 earthquake, the Obama administration added Haiti to the TPS list.
In the years since, thousands of Haitians gained status under the program, allowing them the freedom to build lives in the U.S. — to go to college, work in health care, construction and hotels, pay taxes, and have children who are U.S. citizens. A total of more than 300,000 people — from Sudan, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Somalia, and more — are similarly covered by TPS. The program was originally designed as a way of “throwing a bone to a country that has had a disaster until that country is back on its feet,” as Sarah Pierce at the Migration Policy Institute puts it. Yet in some cases, as with war-torn Somalia, the designation has been renewed so many times that it has been in place for 26 years, turning it into a kind of unstable, de facto refugee program (albeit one that is no help to Somalis fleeing current violence or persecution, only those who have been in the United States for decades).
During his presidential campaign, Trump dropped strong hints that he supported the program, at least when it came to Haitians. Courting the vote in Miami’s Little Haiti, he told a crowd that, “Whether you vote for me or don’t vote for me, I really want to be your greatest champion, and I will be your champion.”
All that changed quickly. As part of its broader anti-immigrant crusade, the Trump administration soon began casting TPS as a scam, a backdoor way for foreigners to stay in the U.S. indefinitely (never mind that many of the countries covered remain ravaged by war and disaster and rely heavily on money sent home by workers covered by TPS for whatever slow reconstruction is underway).
It started just a few months into the Trump administration. First, James McCament, then-acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, urged that Haiti’s inclusion under the program be “terminated.” Then a memo from the Department of Homeland Security suggested that Haitians “prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States.” And in May, John Kelly, then-DHS secretary, said Haitian TPS recipients “need to start thinking about returning” to Haiti.
Overnight, tens of thousands of people were forced to choose from an array of high-risk options: Stay and hope for the best? Join the underground economy? Return to Haiti, where life is far from safe, and the cholera epidemic still claims hundreds of lives each year? Or walk across the border to Canada, where the country’s young prime minister had been making bold proclamations about welcoming refugees?
Since June, that last option is the one a great many Haitians have chosen, as many as 250 of them a day during the summer months. They packed what they could carry, boarded a plane or a bus to Plattsburgh, New York, transferred to a taxi for the 30-minute ride to the end of Roxham Road, near Lacolle, then got out and walked across the ditch that divides Trump’s America and Justin Trudeau’s Canada.
A bus of Haitian asylum seekers from the United States arrives at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Quebec on Aug. 3, 2017.
Photo: Catherine Legault/AFP/Getty Images
Breathing Different Air
“The minute I arrived here, I felt as if was breathing different air. I used to have this sharp pain in my shoulder and suddenly it was gone. I asked myself ‘What happened?’ I realized that it was a product of the stress.”
Agathe St. Preux, a middle-aged woman wearing a modest, shin-length skirt and a black blazer, tells me how it felt to finally arrive in Canada after 12 years of trying and failing to get permanent legal status in the United States.
It was mid-October and we were gathered in a packed room in Montreal’s Maison d’Haïti, a hub for the city’s deep-rooted Haitian community. Dozens of people who made “irregular” border crossings since the anti-TPS threats began had agreed to come and share their migration stories.
The experiences were hugely varied, and several people asked to remain anonymous. There was a mother of three who had been working legally at JFK Airport and decided that her family could only stay intact if she left it all and walked across the border at Lacolle.
There was a man who ran a successful campaign for mayor of a small Haitian city but was “attacked by three thugs” from a rival political faction. “It was a miracle that he survived,” observed a woman who herself had spent three years working in the U.S. but fled when she heard news of friends — fellow Haitians — already being deported under Trump.
A man in his late 20s told the room that he had been in the U.S. for 15 years, went to college, then worked for seven years. “I was part of the economy. I paid taxes.” But with Trump, “the stress was enough to kill me. So I flew to Plattsburgh, took a cab, and walked across.”
Here too was a mother of six who lived for eight years in Miami, studied to become a nurse while working night shifts, and slept at bus stops until the sun rose — all so that she could finally get a job caring for sick Americans and pay taxes to the U.S. government. “We work like animals,” Manie Yanica Quetant told me, through a Creole interpreter. “And then he says, ‘Get out.’”
“He,” of course, is Trump — or “Chomp,” as his name is consistently pronounced here.
For the vast majority of Haitians gathered at the Maison, the route they took to the United States was not the relatively direct one from Haiti to Florida by boat, a passage that has been heavily patrolled for decades by the U.S. Coast Guard. Seeking jobs and more welcoming immigration policies, their journeys were far more circuitous: from Haiti to other Caribbean islands, then to Brazil, where jobs were promised in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Then, as those opportunities fizzled, travels continued up through South and Central America until finally reaching California.
Several people in the room had crossed 10 or 11 countries before reaching their destination. Years spent running and hiding, hunted by authorities, preyed upon by thieves.
Rosemen François, a young woman with spiral curls streaked with purple, told me that what happened in Panama still haunts her. “I was crossing a river and I fell three times in the water, and at one point I couldn’t feel my feet because the skin was coming off. That feeling has marked me.”
Responding to François’s testimony, a man who had been quiet up until then put his hand up. “When we were in Panama, we had to sleep in the forests. … We saw people die. We saw women get raped. We spent six days in the forest in Panama without eating, sleeping outside, in the rain.” With harrowing echoes of the Underground Railroad, he said they heard sounds and “thought there were wild animals and we ran, we lost our belongings, our luggage, everything.”
“But we still had faith and we still had the United States in our minds. We thought that when we arrived, there would be paradise for us.” After all, ever since the earthquake, there had been a special program in place — TPS — that recognized their country’s suffering and allowed them to live and work out of the shadows.
But for many, it didn’t work out that way. As François recalled: “When I arrived in California [three years ago], I thought that would be the end of my journey. Instead I got arrested and put in a detention center, and I couldn’t see daylight or make out the difference between days and night. I was there for seven days. No shower. The food was not edible.” Convinced she had been forgotten in a black hole, “I started screaming … and that’s how I got out.”
For a few years, things started to normalize. She got a work permit. She studied. But then last summer, “my friends got deported and sent back to Haiti, and that’s when I decided to come to Canada.”
Asked why this was happening, her answer is simple: “It was Mr. Trump. Chomp … Chomp took my dream and turned it upside down.”
Quetant, the nurse from Miami, describes her shock at the news that Haitians, who had come to feel a measure of security thanks to TPS, were suddenly being hunted once again. “You turn on the radio and the news is ‘Hey, they are catching the Haitians.’” And so “you have to start running, and you are out of breath, and where are you going to run to?”
The stress, she said, was unbearable. “You don’t know why they are coming to catch you and when you look around, you don’t know how people are seeing you or what to do. You want to stop running.”