TIJUANA, Mexico -- Robins Exile downed a traditional meal of plantains and chicken at a restaurant run by Haitian immigrants, just a short walk from the walled border with the United States. He arrived the night before and went there seeking advice: Should he try to get to the U.S., or was it better to settle in Mexico?
Messages on WhatsApp and Facebook and YouTube videos from Haitian migrants warned him to avoid crossing in Del Rio, Texas, where thousands of Haitians have converged recently. It was no longer the easy place to cross that it was just a few weeks ago.
Discussion Monday at the Tijuana restaurant offered a snapshot of Haitians' diaspora in the Western Hemisphere that picked up steam in 2016 and has shown little sign of easing, demonstrated most recently by the more than 14,000 mostly Haitian migrants assembled around a bridge in Del Rio, a town of only 35,000 people.
Of the roughly 1.8 million Haitians living outside their homeland, the United States is home to the largest Haitian immigrant population in the world, numbering 705,000 people from the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. Significant numbers also live in Latin American countries like Chile, which is home to an estimated 69,000 Haitians, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Nearly all Haitians reach the U.S. border on a well-worn route: Fly to Brazil, Chile or elsewhere in South America. If jobs dry up, slowly move through Central America and Mexico by bus and on foot to wait — perhaps years — in northern border cities like Tijuana for the right time to enter the United States and claim asylum.
It is a population that relies little on smugglers and instead moves based on shared experience and information exchanged between the tight-knit community, often via WhatsApp or Facebook, about where it is safest, where jobs are most plentiful and where it is easiest to enter a country. Earlier this year, large numbers showed up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to cross into El Paso, Texas.
Haitians shifted over the summer to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, across from Del Rio. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Monday that it was unusually sudden.
Many Haitians began attempting to enter the U.S. in the 1980s by sea. Most of them were cut off by the Coast Guard and perhaps given a cursory screening for asylum eligibility, said David FitgGerald, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego and an asylum expert. In 1994, Haitians were intercepted and screened by U.S. authorities on a rented Ukrainian ship and a U.S. Navy hospital ship parked in Kingston, Jamaica. Attempts by sea waned after a Supreme Court decision allowing forced repatriations without refugee protections.
Tens of thousands of Haitians fled after a devastating earthquake in 2010 to settle in South America. After jobs dried up from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, many came to Tijuana. President Barack Obama initially allowed them in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds but abruptly began flying them back to Haiti, leaving many stranded on the Mexican border.
Since then, Haitian restaurants and other businesses have sprouted in Tijuana. Haitians have found work at border factories built for U.S. exports and at car washes. One hardscrabble neighborhood is now known as “Little Haiti" because so many settled there.
Many Haitians have established at least temporary legal status in Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere. Some have spouses or children from their adopted countries.
Exile, who joked that he seemed born to be a refugee given his name, said he was interested in getting documents to be able to work in Mexico if his plan to reach the United States fails. He and his pregnant wife had been on the road for 2 1/2 months after he lost his job in Brazil. They had flown there from Haiti a year and half ago amid spiraling crime.
They stayed along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala for three weeks, and had planned to go to the Texas border. But by the time his family sent money, he heard Tijuana was the safer option with its well-established Haitian community.
“It’s getting complicated, so that’s why I came here where I can hopefully find work and live peacefully, taking care of my family,” Exile said in the restaurant, painted in the colors of the Haitian flag.
He understands the U.S. crackdown in Del Rio, where the Biden administration on Sunday launched an expulsion campaign to Haiti.
“I think people should wait and work in Mexico,” he said. "There are opportunities here, just not as many as in the U.S.”
Pierre Wilthene and his wife agree. They operate the restaurant “Chris Kapab,” or “God Willing" in Creole. They arrived in Tijuana five years ago. The two went to Brazil when the economy was booming ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
“Things are good here,” said Wilthene, who also is vice president of the Association of the Defense of Haitian Immigrants in Tijuana, which helps arrivals find housing, passes along donated furniture, clothing and toys and guides Haitians through Mexico’s health care and public school systems.
Yuliy Ramírez came to Tijuana five years after losing her job in Brazil, where she arrived in 2012. She enrolled in a Tijuana university for a nursing degree.
“Mexico was a good option for me, but I won’t deny that for many they could have a much better life in the U.S.,” Ramirez said.
About 150,000 Haitians went to Chile from 2014 to 2018, many on charter flights to qualify for a visa, and found work as street vendors, janitors and construction workers. They lived largely in marginalized neighborhoods of the capital and suffered discrimination.
In April, a stricter immigration law took effect, and the Chilean government started massive aerial deportations.
Now more Haitians are moving through the Colombian town of Necocli, where migrants catch boat rides to the Panama border to begin the perilous trek through the jungle of the Darien Gap. In July, the town hosted more than 10,000 migrants, nearly all Haitian.
Migrants waiting there stay in hotels or locals’ homes, where they rent rooms for $6 to $10 a night. Large groups sleep under tarps on the beach.
Panama’s Security Minister Juan Pino said Monday that last week his country was still receiving 2,500 to 3,000 migrants — mostly Haitians — arriving through the Darien Gap.
From there, many have made their way to Mexico, where some apply for asylum in the southern city of Tapachula and live in encampments.
Unlike Central Americans, Haitians have generally not been deported from Mexico. So far this year, 19,000 have requested asylum in Mexico, a figure second only to Hondurans. In the previous two years, only about 6,000 Haitians had applied each year.
But most in the past have decided to push on to the United States, though now some are weighing the risks.
The Biden administration plans to ramp up this week to seven flights a day in what may be the swiftest, large-scale American efforts to remove migrants or refugees in decades.
Junior Jean lived in Chile for four years before coming through Mexico to the makeshift camp under the Del Rio bridge.
“Chile was bad for me,” said Jean, 32. "I was sleeping on the street, eating from the trash. That is what we were doing. There is nothing.”
Lozano reported from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Spagat reported from San Diego. AP reporters Eva Vergara in Santiago Chile, Astrid Suarez and Manuel Rueda in Bogota, Colombia, Juan Zamorano in Panama City, and Maria de la Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.