Haitian migration crisis: How IFSI responds through lens of one woman

Published on:

March 22, 2022

Lineda — a 28 year old woman originally from Haiti who has spent the last 11 years moving from country to country — finally made it to the U.S last year. She appears on zoom, speaking in Haitian Kreyól while William Pierre-Louis, the Communications & Multimedia Coordinator for the Immigrant Family Services Institute (IFSI), translates. Her 4 year-old daughter periodically appears in the background of the video in the form of a small hand reaching for her mother, with whom she has been through so much.

Lineda was born in Elías Piña, a province located on the Haitian border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She remained here for three years before a series of relocations – at age three, her mother moved them to Santo Domingo; at age nine, her father brought her back to Haiti, and at age 16, she moved to the Dominican Republic following the devastating 2010 earthquake. She said that the motivation for her departure was in pursuit of a better life. Even though her family home in Northeast Haiti was left largely undamaged by the earthquake, her prospects for the future became rather grim as the wider infrastructure around her would clearly take years to rebuild..

She had her first child, a son, in the D.R., and remained for a total of five years. She finished her high school education there and in 2016, she left for Chile where she had her daughter. She recalled her time in Chile as mainly bridging the gap between working and being a mother, and looks back on it relatively fondly. It was “not bad at all,” she said, a sentiment indicative of her consistently positive outlook on life. 

Lineda found success in Chile, holding employment as well as a small side business and even securing permanent residency in the country. Things were looking up, until she began receiving threats from Chilean nationals because she is Black. The racism she faced there was so consistent and frightening that relocating once again, and having to cross 12 countries en route to the United States, seemed a better option than staying.

While working in a phone bank as a travel reservations representative in Chile, Lineda experienced persistent discrimination on account of her dark skin. Eventually the stress caused her to seek a country that would be more welcoming

Fast-forward to 2021: Lineda and her family arrive at the Texas border. She said upon arriving, her experience with U.S. Immigration officials was not as bad as it was for others who sustained more abuse, though she did spend time in an ICE detention center and her husband still wears an ankle monitor that the government uses to track him. He is living in Brockton and has not been able to  join them in Boston because of this. 

If families were not given an ankle monitor, they were given a cellphone with GPS tracking and instructed to take photographs once a week to send back to Immigration officials for the same purpose — surveillance. She says officials also took everyone’s clothes, presumably disposing of them because they were never returned. Detainees departed wearing prison uniforms and were left to obtain clothing on their own.

This means Haitian migrants are literally being stripped of everything they have. 

“The first thing for you to know is that they came with nothing,” says Dr. Geralde Gabeau, executive director of the Mattapan-based Immigration Family Services Institute (IFSI). “When I say nothing, absolutely nothing. Only whatever clothes that were on their back.” That said, clearly even those are often taken.

Gabeau, originally from Haiti, has ample experience with public health, particularly related to women and children. She earned a Doctoral Degree in Strategic Foresight from Regent University, a Masters Degree in Public Health from Boston University and a Masters Degree in Management from Cambridge College. She says immigrants need everything, from housing to a toothbrush. 

IFSI staff have been working fervently to provide for these families, and it’s not easy. 

“Everything that a human being needs, they need,” says Gabeau. “Mattresses, beds, a cup to drink your tea, a spoon. We have to provide all of those things because they are here with no money, they don’t know the area, (and) they just need a place to live.

With her husband and children Lineda enters the IFSI storeroom wearing their only set of clothes. Choosing another helped them feel that much more welcome and supported.

Another major issue is employment. Migrants who are in the process of applying for asylum are not allowed to work. 

Gabeau says that immigration lawyers say 99 percent of Haitian migrants won’t win any asylum cases. But even if a case is won, they must wait nearly a year before they can get employment authorization. It used to be 90 days. 

While living in Chile, Lineda worked as an agent selling airline tickets until she lost her job. She says things became difficult after that, so she began her journey to the U.S. with her husband and two young children. Now, though she is unable to find work, she says her goal is to be a hairdresser or an accountant.

What matters most to her is that she is here, in the U.S., saying it’s a blessing she was able to get out of jail and be living comfortably with her kids, receiving support from IFSI, instead of being deported. The crisis is far from over, though. In November, more than 9,200 Haitians were deported from Del Rio, Texas to Haiti, even though most of them had been living and working in South America for years. 

Besides housing and employment, the other categories she cites as urgent needs include food, clothes, legal assistance, and medical care. She says several migrants were pregnant, and there are now at least 20 babies at Boston Medical Center who are dehydrated because border officials didn’t offer water or food. 

IFSI received donations and it expects assistance from the city of Boston, but calls for help from the federal government have gone answered. Gabeau calls it a humanitarian crisis. 

“It’s a growing crisis and (just) because they don’t see breaking news on TV, that doesn’t mean that the crisis is gone,” she says. “That’s the reason why I really want everyone to keep an eye open about supporting Haiti and supporting Haitians who are here. We should all stand together with Haiti, for Haiti, to denounce all of the inhumane treatment.”

The IFSI ‘Immigrant Navigator’ is a multi-lingual web portal with associated in-person services that ease and accelerate the settlement and social integration of vulnerable, often undocumented immigrants. A key feature are the stories these immigrants share with IFSI staff through interviews and from which other immigrants gain inspiration, lessons and tips about how to navigate the perilous journey and US integration process. These stories also educate a broader US public including policy makers and service providers. Every 2 weeks a new story is published on the IFSI Blog. Our fifth story, “Haitian Migration Crisis'' captures the challenges of one woman and how an IFSI set of integrated services help meet her needs. Thank you for reading — and for welcoming these newcomers to our communities!” - Dr. Geralde Gabeau, Founder & Executive Director.

Navigator Lessons:

  1. Natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, even when not destroying everyone’s home, still ravage a country and devastate any real hope many ambitious young people might have held for a future in their homeland.
  2. Expressions of racism and prejudice can be a powerful deterrent driving migrants, even those settled and accomplished in their work as was the case for Lineda in Chile, to uproot their families and leave the country.
  3. Migrants can expect they may lose all their possessions over the course of their journey. Even clothing is commonly not returned if one is lucky enough tob e released from US detention.
  4. Starting with nothing to rebuild a life in a foreign country is very confusing, so many immigrant services organizations such as IFSI attempt to provide a ‘one-stop shop’ coordinating everything from food and housing to healthcare, legal assistance, educational services…all with a lot of love!

By The IFSI Immigrant Navigator Team: Dr. Mario Malivert, Makendi H. Alce, Larry Childs, Angie Gabeau, Hidalgo Delbeau, Nick Carstensen and Guerlince Semerzier

Cartoon illustrations: Teddy K. Mombrun

Special guest journalist for this story: Victoria Rein