Haitian Migrants Turn Toward Brazil


Haitians pray in Brasiléia, a common stopping point for those moving to Brazil. Haitians pray in Brasiléia, a common stopping point for those moving to Brazil. Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY DOUGLAS ENGLE/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

At 7:30 on a recent morning, dozens of people were already outside the Brazilian embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a white stucco building in the suburb of Pétionville. Often there are hundreds, some with visa appointments, and many more waiting in hopes of one. Workers hurried up the slope to the upscale enclave from the dusty downtown below; Jalousie, a shantytown of pastel-painted cinderblock homes, hovered above. “Today makes one year and six months that I’ve been coming here every day,” said Saintadele Ladouceur, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of two. She is from Delmas, one of the Port-au-Prince districts hit hardest by the earthquake in 2010.

The 7.0-magnitude quake, which leveled much of Port-au-Prince and its surroundings, killed an estimated two hundred and thirty thousand people, and left more than a million and a half homeless. It was, as Paul Farmer has put it, an “acute-on-chronic” event: there were countless chronic problems in Haiti, but they became acute after the earthquake. The World Bank estimates that about eighty per cent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.

At just past eight o’clock, a call of “Silence. Silence. Silence!” rose from the crowd outside the embassy. The phone lines had opened, and anyone with a cell phone was trying to get a visa appointment. The embassy does not have an online system for the visa process because applicants have limited access to computers. Embassy officials also decided that it would be better to give everyone a chance each day than to set appointment times weeks or months in advance. There was a collective sigh of frustration: a busy tone. The officials told me that, on an average day, they miss more than twelve hundred calls. With a staff of six, they can take no more than forty appointments daily.

Embassy personnel often advise the crowd to leave, and ask local authorities for police enforcement to keep order outside. But they undermined their own guidelines last year by briefly accepting applications from the people outside, whether or not they had appointments. They found that it didn’t help. “People who could not get an appointment would spend night and day outside the building and, during business hours, even block the access of those who had an appointment,” said the embassy vice-consul, Daniel Arneiro. Now, he said, “I suppose they think there’s always a chance.” The staff has the list of people with appointments for the day, and goes to the door to let them in, one by one. Getting the appointment, as Arneiro put it, “is like winning the lottery.”

As far back as the seventies, Robert Maguire, a Haiti scholar at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, told me, Haitians described emigration as “cheche lavi,” or looking for life. For decades, most Haitian emigrants left for the United States, now home to more than half a million documented Haitian immigrants, who send more than a billion dollars in remittances to their home country each year. But, since the early eighties, the U.S. government has engaged in an increasingly restrictive policy of deterrence and expedited return. Brazil’s immigration policy is comparatively lax, its labor market famously strong, and, for the first time, Haitians are leaving, in significant numbers, for the south. More than twenty thousand Haitians have moved to Brazil since the earthquake. “It’s my dream because, if I went over there, I’d get a job, no problem,” André Desir, a young man from downtown Port-au-Prince, said. “Right now I don’t feel good. This is all I can think about.”

The strict U.S. immigration policy is based on the premise that the majority of Haitians fleeing the country are running from poverty rather than political persecution. In the days after the earthquake, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane outfitted with radio transmitters flew over the country, broadcasting a recorded message from Haiti’s ambassador in Washington. “If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case,” it blasted in Creole. Still, the U.S. offered temporary protected status to undocumented Haitians who had arrived before the earthquake, and put a halt to deportations. The status was later extended to Haitians who had arrived in the year after the quake, but the annual cap on visas for Haitians hardly increased. Despite the efforts of advocates and policymakers, Haitians whose visa petitions have been granted still have to wait several years, because of the backlog created by entry limits. In January of 2011, deportations resumed. In recent months, in northwest Haiti, Coast Guard helicopters have been heard hovering overhead, and cutters have been seen from the shore.

The Brazilian story is different. Though Brazil, historically, has been a nation of migrants, economic crises starting in the late seventies turned the country into a source of emigrants; the exodus reached its height with the economic depression that followed the fall of the military dictatorship, in 1985. Until recent years, immigration to Brazil “was not an issue, primarily because it was almost non-existent,” Paulo Abrão, the Brazilian National Secretary of Justice, told me. But, as Brazil’s economy has grown into the largest in South America, and the seventh-largest in the world, it has become a magnet for workers from poorer Latin American countries and beyond. Earlier this year, unemployment fell to a near-record low of 4.9 per cent, and over the past decade, some forty million Brazilians have joined the middle class. Meanwhile, the labor supply has fallen short of the country’s growth in labor-intensive sectors like construction.

Since the ouster of Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004—it was the second time he was deposed—Brazil has led the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, and some twenty-two hundred Brazilian troops have been stationed there. After the earthquake, word spread in Haiti about opportunities in Brazil, particularly as part of the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup, and to the 2016 Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro. For Haitians, however, Brazilian visas haven’t been easy to come by. For tourist visas, applicants must prove that they have the resources to fund the trip; for work visas, a Brazilian employer must start the application. A new smuggling industry has emerged to help Haitians traverse what is known as “the jungle route.” Undocumented Haitians pay as much as four thousand dollars, which amounts to months of work for one family, to get to Brazil. The trip is perilous, and can take more than three months. Migrants typically take flights from the Dominican Republic to Panama to Ecuador or Peru, where they meet “coyotes,” who take them by land into the Amazon and across the border.

Without visas, they present themselves as refugees, seeking asylum, but, because they aren’t fleeing persecution, they aren’t eligible for refugee status. Brazil, however, has not deported them, and, instead, has granted them visas. “They’re already there, half a world a way, and Brazil wouldn’t deny them,” said Arneiro. By the end of 2011, about sixteen hundred Haitians had been granted visas this way. But Brazil was slow to process their papers, and the situation was deteriorating. In January, 2012, there were about two thousand Haitians stuck in Brazil’s Amazonian outpost towns, waiting for documents that would allow them to leave for the cities and find work.

That month, in Port-au-Prince, the Brazilian government started issuing Haitians what it called “humanitarian visas,” which are residential visas granted for humanitarian reasons, in hopes of limiting the number of migrants taking the jungle route. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff visited the city that February, and declared, “We are ready to receive Haitian citizens who choose to look for new opportunities in Brazil.” A hundred visas started to be issued monthly, but the number of migrants crossing the jungle border did not decline. In the first seven months of 2013, four thousand Haitians arrived in Brasiléia, a small border town in the state of Acre that has become a welcome mat for undocumented migrants. In a further effort last summer, Brazil announced that it would lift the quota on visas for Haitians. As of June, the Brazilian embassy in Haiti had granted more than ten thousand humanitarian visas, and it continues to issue as many as possible, given its operational capacity.

The line was long and tense. A screaming match erupted about whether the people with visa appointments were lucky or had paid off someone inside. (The embassy has said that there are no bribes.) Six security guards stood on the steps of the embassy, ready to disrupt the fights that often break out at its doors. Water vendors passed through the crowd, and a steady stream of cars and motorbikes rolled by, some dropping people off outside the embassy.

James Novembre, a thirty-eight-year-old father of two, stood outside a car in front of the embassy. He had tried to get a U.S. visa three times, but didn’t have any luck, so he looked to Brazil instead; his younger brother lives in Brasília. Among the lucky ones, he had already received the visa, and was stopping by the embassy to submit documents for his family’s visa process before his flight to São Paulo that evening. He used to own a small beverage-distribution company, but was robbed at gunpoint at the end of last year. Once he paid back his loans, he had nothing left. “I feel excited because I am going to get a job and help my family,” he said. “Because I cannot get work here.”

By mid-afternoon, rain clouds hovered over Port-au-Prince. People who had already been in the embassy, whose papers were ready, stepped past the double doors again to receive their visas. One by one, they emerged, smiling and carrying crisp manila envelopes. The rest of the crowd, those without appointments, who had returned day after day to try their luck, watched them. Pedro Lahens strode down the steps flashing a smile, clutching the envelope. Twenty-two years old, he had been trying to get the visa for a year, and plans to go to São Paulo once he saves enough money to buy a ticket. “I’ve been suffering a long time, since after the earthquake,” he said. A car passed by, swathed in Brazilian flags. “If I could, I would throw a party tonight.”


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