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New Haitian migration patterns end in displacement

Haitians have created new migration strategies to places such as Tijuana, Mexicali, Venezuela and Brazil that often put them at risk for deportation.

New Haitian migration patterns end in displacement

April Mayes, associate professor and chair, history department, Pomona College. (Photo: Kyilah Terry/ UCLA.)

By Kyilah Terry (UCLA 2019)

UCLA International Institute, April 17, 2019 — “Haitians have moved throughout the Caribbean region and now mainland Latin America and Mexico. It seems wherever they go, crises occur and oftentimes citizenship, nationality or the right to stay is denied,” said April Mayes, associate professor and chair of the history department at Pomona College, at a recent event sponsored by the Program on Caribbean Studies.

Since January 2017, Mayes has interviewed Haitians in San Diego, Tijuana and Mexicali who have emigrated to Mexico from Venezuela and Brazil. Haitians migrating to each of these countries appear to have different exodus histories. The goal of Mayes’ current research is to reveal how hemispheric, local forces and individual desires inform – or do not inform – this migration process and what Haitians hoped to accomplish at these destinations.

Immigration to Brazil and Venezuela

“Mainstream narratives about Haitian migration to Brazil and then to the U.S.-Mexico border, focus on the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2015 as strong push factors,” said Mayes. However, one of the historian’s first interviews (with a native Haitian named Janel who emigrated to Brazil) did not conform to this storyline.

Robin Derby, director of the UCLA Program on Caribbean Studies and associate professor of history at UCLA. Janel’s brother left their home in Haiti in 2008, and Janel himself, in 2016. The young man moved to Brazil at the age of 15 because things became difficult in the wake of his parents’ death: he was too young to get a work permit and could not financially support his other siblings that remained in Haiti. “It is clear,” said Mayes, “that among the first Haitians in Brazil were those who immigrated right before the earthquake.” The question of why they were migrating there remains unanswered.

According to Mayes, a change in Brazilian migration policy contributed to Haitian migration. In an effort to combat possible human trafficking and prevent Haitians from simply showing up at the Brazilian border, the government began to authorize some 1,000–2,000 visas per month at the Brazilian embassy in Haiti. This change in visa regime began in 2013 and continues today. As a result, “Haitians came to outnumber Colombians within the Brazilian labor market; it was estimated in 2017 that around 50,000 Haitians received visas and were living and working in Brazil,” noted the speaker.

Using data from a research team which examined migration patterns, Mayes conducted a survey among immigrants living in the refugee camps in Tijuana in 2017. Of those surveyed, 634 were Haitians who emigrated from Brazil; another 600 had migrated from Venezuela.

“Caracas has had a Haitian population since the 1970s and there's actually a part of Caracas known as Little Haiti,” said the historian, “but recently their numbers have been increasing.” Mayes interviewed 13 Haitian families who found their way to Tijuana and conducted a small survey. When asked why they left Venezuela, they pointed to the economy and the increase in violence there.

The new migration to Mexico

In 2016, Tijuana authorities noticed a significant presence of Central Americans, Africans and Haitians immigrants hoping to cross the border. However, “The wave of Haitian crossing the border in late 2016 seemingly arrived at the wrong time,” said Mayes.

“One day [Caroline Jose, cofounder of the Haitian Bridge Alliance] called saying that there were Haitians in San Diego,” said Mayes. “I said that that is not possible – because Haitians go to Florida. But when I got to the border, we found 10 Haitians,” she remarked. By the end of 2016, some 17,000 Haitians had presented themselves to Mexican officials; of these, an estimated 15,000 made their way to Tijuana and 7,500 crossed into the U.S.

From 2011 to 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials refrained from deporting Haitians, giving many the chance to apply for temporary protected status (TPS). This policy changed in September 2017, however, when the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security announced the deportation of Haitians with TPS status, despite continued devastation from Hurricane Matthew in Haiti. The risk of deportation did not, however, slow migration. “Even with the future of TPS in jeopardy, many Haitians still decided to migrate to the United States,” commented the scholar.


Mayes’ preliminary findings indicate that whether Haitian migrants go to Venezuela, Brazil or Mexico, they often put their bodies on the line to make their way to an international border. “After looking at the quantitative data, I am suggesting that… it wasn't necessarily the earthquake that pushed people out of Port-au-Prince,” she concluded.

A number of forces prompted the shift in Haitian migration strategies, including a pending change in the U.S. presidency [prior to Trump’s election] and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy. In addition, the decision by the constitutional tribunal of the Dominican Republic to denationalize hundreds of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry in 2013 also appears to have played a role in sparking the new migration patterns.

And because Haitian migrants do not consider a return to Haiti an option, said Mayes, they opt to go further after encountering economic crises at their first destinations, moving from Brazil and Venezuela to Mexico, with the goal of getting to the U.S.

All photos by Kyilah Terry/ UCLA.