Eric Jean Louis, like hundreds of other Haitian migrants, left his home and employment in Chile early this year to travel thousands of miles to the United States after learning that he may gain asylum under President Joe Biden’s new government.
His expectations were crushed in September when U.S. officials in Del Rio, Texas, returned him to Haiti, a country he fled 14 years ago and said had since become unrecognizable, ripped apart by gang violence.
After six weeks of feeling like he was “going back to hell,” the 47-year-old scraped together enough money from friends to buy plane tickets to Chile, ready to give the country another shot – even if it meant starting over in a country where, according to Jean Louis, life was not easy and Haitians were sometimes subjected to racism.
But it still beat home.
“Since I’ve been here, I hardly sleep at night. I’m afraid,” Jean Louis said in Port-au-Prince, shortly before he left for Chile with his wife and four relatives in November.
Jean Louis’ family and others with money and the right visas are part of a new migration triangle, returning to places in the Southern Cone they had just left, and abandoning, for now, their American Dream.
As rumors grew among Haitian communities in Chile and Brazil that Haitians were being allowed to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to claim asylum, an encampment under the Del Rio International Bridge swelled to 14,000 people in September wanting to enter the United States. It became a symbol of Biden’s struggle to curb record numbers of migrants at the border.
Close to 8,000 Haitians were eventually expelled from Del Rio to Haiti, U.S. officials say. Nearly all had previously lived in Chile or Brazil, countries that in the last decade have taken in tens of thousands of people fleeing poverty in Haiti.
Dozens of those expelled have since returned to Chile or Brazil, estimated Giuseppe Loprete, Chief of Mission for the International Organization for Migration in Haiti.
Those numbers are likely to increase – but slowly, given the challenge of arranging migration paperwork and finding thousands of dollars for entire families to travel.
“They lost the little they had, and now they’re back to square one,” Loprete said.
At Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport last month, a Reuters reporter spoke to three Del Rio deportees, some with their families, who were flying to Chile and Brazil.
All said they hoped never to return to Haiti due to worsening violence and political turmoil.
Since President Jovenel Moise’s assassination in July, Haiti’s gangs have extended their influence, fueling kidnappings that target locals as well as foreigners, including American and Canadian missionaries in October.
Migrant advocacy groups and a Biden appointee blasted the U.S. decision to return people to Haiti during such chaos.
Jean Louis’ time back in Haiti coincided with a month-long gang blockade of fuel supplies that created crippling gasoline shortages and prevented him from seeing relatives. Fear of gangs often left him too scared to even leave his house, he said.
Juvenson Sudney, 25, left Haiti in 2015 for Brazil. In July this year, hoping to escape economic malaise in South America and join an uncle in Florida, he set off on the 5,200 mile (8,400 km) journey to the United States.
He got as far as Del Rio – and then was put on a plane to Haiti.
The upheaval in Haiti pushed him to return to Brazil, where he is a naturalized citizen.
“There’s nothing here for me,” he said at the Port-au-Prince airport.
Other Haitians have found going back to South America tricky. Four people expelled from Del Rio told Reuters they were struggling to pay for plane tickets and get visas in order.
Some left Chile while awaiting visa renewals, and must now contend with tougher visa rules from 2018. Chile’s migration office did not respond to a request for comment.
Brazil’s foreign ministry said it could “facilitate” the return to Brazil of families where the children were born in Brazil, and that foreigners with Brazilian spouses can obtain entry visas. Others would be handled case by case, the ministry said.
Joao Chaves, a Brazilian federal public defender who works with migrants, said he was helping two families with Brazilian-born children – who were also sent to Haiti from Del Rio – request plane tickets from Brazil’s government for the return trip.
Migrant advocates say visa applications for Haitians in Chile and Brazil are backed up, partly because of the pandemic.
Jean Louis, who has a permanent residency visa in Chile, said he spent $8,000 traversing Central America and Mexico to reach Del Rio, draining his savings. Friends helped him and his wife buy tickets to Chile for about $710 each.
Once he and his family landed in Santiago, they were held at the airport six hours for COVID-19 tests and paperwork.
“I prayed to God they would let us enter Chile, it was my only hope,” he said.
Back in Peumo, Chile’s wine-growing area a couple of hours south of Santiago, he informed friends about how Haiti had changed.
His supervisor invited him back to his janitor job, but Jean Louis rejected, preferring to work at a factory. He also declined requests from friends to return items he had given away.
“I’d like to start afresh,” he remarked.
Remorse gnaws at him, despite his relief to be back in Chile.
“Everyone knows I went on this disaster trip,” he explained. “And that’s where I fell short.”