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Haitian migrants find safe haven at new El Paso shelter

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From a young age, Milord always planned to study agriculture. He wanted to cultivate his family’s land near Saint-Marc, Haiti, and to help rebuild his country. But the 36-year-old now finds himself in vastly different surroundings: El Paso, Texas.

Milord (who asked that his last name and face not be published as a safety precaution), is among a growing number of migrants who have found safe haven in a new El Paso shelter created specifically to accommodate Haitians.

“It’s a very dangerous and difficult journey these people have to take, so that’s why when I see them here, I have to treat them with dignity and respect,” said Pastor Jean-Jacob Jeudy, a retired captain in the U.S. Army who began operating an ad hoc shelter for Haitians out of the Walk by Faith International Missionary Church of El Paso in May. 

The church has hosted more than 500 Haitian migrants so far, with cots placed anywhere there is floor space, even on the altar, and then packed up in the morning to make space for church service. Jeudy said they can fit up to 27 sleeping there, but that no one is turned away, and migrants often sleep at his home if the shelter is full. 

“We put ourselves in their situation, How do I want somebody to treat me?” Jeudy asked. 

Jacob Jeudy, left, a Haitian-born veteran of the U.S. Army and pastor of Walk by Faith International Missionary Church, translates as Milord recounts his migration story in Haitian Creole. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Originally from Port au Prince, Haiti, Jeudy and his wife Rachelle founded the church in 2016 primarily to serve the Haitian population at Fort Bliss. But as more Haitian migrants began to be released in El Paso, the Jeudys decided they needed to help.

Now, the church is aiming to find a more permanent space to stage the shelter that is outside of the church, one that is equipped with showers and can host a larger number of migrants.

Haitian migrant apprehensions by Customs and Border Protection have increased significantly in recent months, both within the El Paso Border Patrol sector and nationwide. 

This increase coincides with a May 22 decision by the Biden administration to reinstate Temporary Protected Status designation for Haitians residing in the United States, which allows eligible Haitian nationals to live and work in the United States. 

Haiti initially gained TPS designation during the Obama administration after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. But TPS designation for Haiti was terminated in 2018, when former President Trump infamously referred to Haiti and other nations with primarily Black populations as “shithole countries.”

“These (newly arriving Haitian migrants) are people who have been waiting for a very long time, and have been stopped one by President Trump, and two by Title 42,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego created to support and advocate on behalf of Haitian immigrants into the United States. Title 42 refers to a policy begun by the Trump administration and continued by President Biden to rapidly expel most migrants arriving at the border, on the grounds they are a potential public health threat during the pandemic.

Milord is among those who have been waiting south of the border to cross into the United States. He left Haiti as a second-year agronomy student in 2016, traveling first to Brazil then through Mexico as part of a protracted journey to hopefully reunite with family members who have found a new home in Florida.

“(Agronomy is) what I wanted to do. But the dream is gone,” Milord said. “Because of all this drama happening in my country, there’s no stability for me to go to school.” 

Haiti was the world’s first Black-led republic when it gained independence from France in 1804. But as part of its independence, Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France — payments for former French slave owners amounting to more than $20 billion in today’s dollars, from what is now considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. 

“Haiti is in complete shambles,” Jozef said, referring not only to ongoing political instability and strife, but also to the recent assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise. The Haitian Bridge Alliance and 133 other humanitarian organizations signed a joint letter to Biden following Moise’s assassination, calling for a halt to U.S. deportations of Haitian nationals and parole to all Haitians seeking protection in the United States.

Once they are within the U.S. immigration system, Haitian migrants can face additional hurdles compared to Spanish-speaking migrants, said Heidi Cerneka, an attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. 

“A big challenge for (Haitian migrants) is language,” she said. Cerneka recalled a recent interaction she observed between an immigration judge and a Haitian Creole speaker who had no attorney, where the judge handed the migrant a 12 page asylum application and told him to fill it out. 

“Your honor, I don’t speak English, how can I do this?” the migrant asked through an interpreter, according to Cerneka. “I just felt the despair in the pit of my stomach. I don’t think they’ve gotten any legal orientation because of the Creole.”

Mark Rawlins, right, and Jacob Jeudy discuss the logistics of providing shelter, food, transportation, and access to showers for the Haitian migrants who typically pass through El Paso on their way to other cities and states. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Issa Arnita, spokesperson for Management Training Corporation, which staffs the Otero County Processing Center, one of two Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in the El Paso area, said Otero uses interpretation and translation services to communicate with detainees who don’t speak English.

“Most of the detainees from Haiti also speak Spanish, which is beneficial since many of our staff are fluent Spanish speakers,” Arnita said. 

Both ICE and the Bering Straits Native Corporation (the parent company for the contractor who staffs El Paso Service Processing Center) have not responded to requests for comment for this story.

Jeudy said he has also heard stories from migrants at his shelter who have faced prejudicial treatment within detention, and in the El Paso community, based on their skin color. He recalled how the police were called recently when several Haitian migrants were standing outside the church in a group. 

“(The police) called just because they are Black,” Jeudy said. “Because they are Black, because they have that (ankle bracelet) on their feet, that’s all. They were not doing anything bad, they were not harassing people, they were not causing any trouble.”

Because of the different challenges that Haitian migrants can face, having a specific Haitian shelter becomes all the more important, Jozef said.

“A lot of the established institutions (in El Paso) that are providing shelter do not have the cultural understanding, the language access and the support that the people need,” she said. 

Milord, who was held by Customs and Border Protection for several days after crossing the bridge from Ciudád Juárez into El Paso, arrived at Pastor Jeudy’s shelter on Monday afternoon bearing a CBP ankle bracelet and a single plastic bag of his belongings. There, he was welcomed warmly by Jeudy, who greeted him in Haitian Creole and began to orient him to life in the United States. 

“I want to be free in the United States,” Milord said to El Paso Matters, shortly after arriving at the shelter. “I want to be able to operate just like everybody else. I want to be able to have a job and do things to assist my family, just like everybody else.”

Cover photo: Jacob Jeudy, a Haitian-born veteran of the U.S. Army and pastor of Walk by Faith International Missionary Church, gestures toward the small nave of the church where, in the evening, chairs are pushed away and bedding is laid out to provide a place for Haitian migrants to sleep. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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