Thousands of Haitians Are Being Allowed Into the U.S. But What Comes Next?

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — In early May, Rooldy Alexandre, a Haitian American pastor, answered a late-night call from a man speaking Creole who identified himself as Josue Alexis and said he had been following Mr. Alexandre’s sermons online. “Pastor, I just crossed the border with my pregnant wife and young child,” the man said. “Can you help?”

They needed someone to receive them in the United States.

“As a pastor, I am used to calls from people in need. It was the first time I received a call from the border,” Mr. Alexandre, 53, said. “I just had to act.” He agreed to buy them plane tickets.

Beersheba Adventist Church in Philadelphia is now supporting nine Haitians who have crossed the southwestern border in recent months, including Mr. Alexis and his family. They are living in a three-story clapboard house about 20 miles away in New Jersey, their rent, food and supplies paid for by 120 Haitian congregants who are pooling their money until the families can become self-sufficient.

Mr. Alexis, his family and friends are part of a surge of Haitian migrants that peaked this month when 14,000 migrants waded across the Rio Grande into the tiny Texas town of Del Rio, where they camped out under a bridge in squalor.

The chaos, which led to bipartisan outrage in Washington, prompted the Biden administration to begin dispatching as many as 4,000 of the newly arrived Haitians on deportation flights to Haiti — a country most of the migrants had left years before for jobs in South America.

Thousands more — mainly families with young children, or vulnerable pregnant women — have been allowed to stay, often because they could, like Mr. Alexis, produce evidence of a friend or relative who could help provide a foothold.

“As a pastor, I am used to calls from people in need. It was the first time I received a call from the border,” Rooldy Alexandre said. “I just had to act.”Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

The highly publicized crush of Haitians this month underscores the continuing difficulty of deterring mass migration on the southwestern border, even with an arsenal of measures designed to slow the arrival of migrants during a pandemic. It also shows the degree to which early generations of immigrants continue to pave the way for others who come later, in a pattern that is as old as the nation itself.

Mr. Alexis, 25, had slipped across the Arizona border with his wife and 3-year-old son a few months before the rush at the Texas border.

Toggling between fluent French and Spanish, Mr. Alexis said it had taken more than a year and every bit of his family’s savings to reach the United States from Chile, where they had been living. Covid-related border closures had stranded them for months in countries like Panama along their 4,700-mile trek over land.

They were under no illusions of ever building stable lives in Haiti, which has been plagued with political upheaval, economic dysfunction, civil unrest, gang violence and natural disasters in recent years.

“To return to Haiti is to commit suicide,” Mr. Alexis said. “I was willing to take this arduous path to achieve something tomorrow.”

Before he emigrated, Mr. Alexis had played forward for a professional soccer team in Port-au-Prince. As a teenager, he had traveled to Minneapolis representing Haiti in a youth championship.

By 2015, two of his older sisters had emigrated, one to Brazil and the other to Chile. After arriving in Santiago in 2016, he found a job in a chemicals lab and, on the side, played soccer for a semiprofessional team. The following year, he married a fellow Haitian, Antoinette Peroux, who worked as a cashier at a Burger King. Antonio was born in 2018.

Mr. Alexis, center, playing soccer with Haitian friends in Trenton, N.J. Before emigrating, Mr. Alexis had played forward for a professional soccer team in Port-au-Prince.Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

They managed, the couple said, but it was difficult to obtain legal permanent residency in Chile; immigrants without status were exploited and paid low salaries. Ms. Peroux was passed over for promotions because she was not Chilean, she said.

In 2020, the couple was paying close attention to the Democratic presidential candidate, Joseph R. Biden Jr. He promised to restore the possibility of asylum for people persecuted in their own countries and to be kinder toward immigrants than the incumbent he was running against, Donald J. Trump.

“I decided that Chile was a first step,” Mr. Alexis said. “To really advance, we needed to reach the United States.”

He and his wife gathered about $5,000 and began the trek to North America, by foot and by bus, sometimes paying smugglers to guide them along remote, perilous trails. At one point, they ran out of food and drinking water. Ms. Peroux continued to breastfeed Antonio to spare him from river water that might be contaminated.

When Mr. Biden was elected, the family celebrated at a refugee camp in Panama, where they had been waiting for Costa Rica to ease Covid-related border restrictions.

It was there that they befriended Julien Cheridor, 53, a Haitian accountant who had also decided to leave Chile. He told Mr. Alexis about a pastor in Pennsylvania whom he had known in his youth, and Mr. Alexis began listening to his sermons.

“The words of the pastor inspired me,” Mr. Alexis said.

By the time they reached Mexico in early 2021, Mr. Alexis heard that migrants who reached San Luis Río Colorado, a border town in Sonora state, were managing to cross into Arizona. From near Mexico’s southern border, they took a 19-hour bus ride to Mexico City, and then boarded another bus for 34 hours to San Luis Río Colorado.

They crossed on May 6 into Arizona, where they and other migrants were quickly apprehended and loaded into a Border Patrol van that ferried them to a station for processing.

“To return to Haiti is to commit suicide,” Mr. Alexis said. “I was willing to take this arduous path to achieve something tomorrow.”Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

From there, they were bused to a facility in Phoenix, where they were tested for Covid-19 and told to contact relatives to book tickets to their destination. Mr. Alexis tried to reach an uncle in Boston; he didn’t answer.

Fearing they were running out of time, he thought of Mr. Alexandre.

After buying their plane tickets, the pastor called an emergency meeting of the church board to discuss next steps.

Riquet Brutus, a church elder who had been a prosecutor in Haiti before fleeing the brutal government of former President François Duvalier, found a house near Trenton, N.J., half an hour from Philadelphia, that could accommodate Mr. Alexis’ family in one room — at the church’s expense.

The board activated the church’s community-service group, which normally supports homeless shelters, to collect money, food, toiletries and clothes for the family.

On May 10, Antonio’s third birthday, the family moved into a large room on the first floor of the big house. Twelve days later, they had a stroke of extraordinarily good fortune: The Biden administration announced that it was extending temporary protected status to Haitians who had arrived in the United States on or before May 21, allowing them to live and work in the country without fear of deportation in recognition of the hardships that existed in their homeland.

No such protection was available to the thousands of Haitians who flooded into Del Rio in September and were forced onto flights to Haiti.

“It was a gift from God,” said Ms. Peroux, whose baby is due next month. They immediately filed applications.

Mr. Alexis and his cousin Jeff Quetho, second from right, talking with relatives. Mr. Quetho had just arrived in the United States after crossing the Rio Grande to Del Rio, Texas.Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

Less than a month after the Alexis family settled into the house in New Jersey, on June 3, Mr. Alexandre received a text from a migrant hotel in El Paso. “Your family has arrived. Please book their tickets,” it said. He was incredulous.

He called the number, and the phone was passed to Mr. Cheridor, the man who had initially told Mr. Alexis about Mr. Alexandre. Mr. Cheridor had just made it across the border, and reminded the pastor that they had attended the same church in Haiti decades ago. The pastor remembered him.

In addition to asking for airfare and accommodation for himself, Mr. Cheridor had another favor to ask. Could the church help a mother and daughter he had met along the way?

The church’s board agreed to pay $1,300 in airfare and to rent two more rooms, for $600 apiece, in the beige-and-brown house. Mr. Cheridor took the attic. The mother, Louina Sylvain, 33, and her daughter, Louidjana, 12, occupied a room on the second floor.

Then in late July, Mr. Alexis called the pastor again. This time, it was his sister, Marie, who had crossed the border with her husband and toddler. She did not need help with airfare. But could the church let her family stay at the house?

Yes, he said.

Beersheba Adventist Church secured Julian Cheridor a room in Trenton.Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

Building a solid foundation, he said, can be challenging until people have the ability to legally work. Mr. Alexandre has explained to his congregants that the families in the house will get on their feet as soon as they obtain their work permits.

“The church is doing whatever we can to support our compatriots,” he said. “When there is an emergency, we ask church members to give more than they usually give. That’s what happened in this case.”

To keep his soccer skills strong, Mr. Alexis plays every evening except Saturdays, when he goes to church. He has traveled occasionally to play in a semiprofessional league in New York, earning $200 for a few matches. Mr. Cheridon has done some janitorial work to earn some cash.

But they realize that they are a burden on the congregation.

“Since arriving, the church has had to help us with absolutely everything,” Mr. Alexis said as his son whizzed by atop a toy Batmobile.

“I look forward to managing on my own, without depending on others,” he said. “There are other people arriving who are going to need the pastor’s help.”

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