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Why Haitians in Chile Keep Heading North to the U.S.

SANTIAGO, Chile — Phalone had managed to make ends meet since moving from Haiti to Chile in 2013, and working as a hairdresser in a small town north of the capital.

But in May, she, her two children, and 20 relatives and friends embarked upon a perilous, 4,700-mile journey north to the United States, taking a gamble, and hoping for the best.

“Things became too difficult for immigrants in Chile,” said Phalone, who did not want her last name published for fear it would endanger her immigration prospects in the United States. “They tell us to go back home, that we are scum.”

Of the thousands of Haitians who showed up recently at the southern border of the United States, many, like Phalone, came from Chile. Over the past decade, as Haitians sought refuge from the devastating 2010 earthquake, Chile — with its generous entry policy and stable economy — became an even more attractive destination for them.

Things changed quickly with the election of two new presidents.

In Chile, migrants found themselves facing new restrictions, while in the United States, the Biden administration offered new protections for Haitian migrants who were already there. Haitians in Chile, mistaking that for a welcome mat, set out on the arduous trek north to the border, only to find themselves forcibly returned to Haiti, sometimes in shackles.

“We were sold the ‘Chilean dream,’ but it turned out to be false,” said Steeve Azor, 28, who migrated from Haiti to Chile in 2014. “Everyone thought President Biden would be more flexible on migration.”

To those who made it to the border community of Del Rio, Texas, after months on the road, it was instantly clear that they had been mistaken. There was scant welcome for them by the United States, just scenes of squalor and desperation.

Some were forcibly repulsed by U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback as they tried to cross the Rio Grande. Thousands of others crammed under a bridge, and many were flown back to where it all began: Haiti, a broken country where crisis is piled upon crisis.

And yet many Haitians are still making their way from Chile, either unaware of what awaits them at the U.S. border or willing to take their chances.

In part, that is because life in Chile is increasingly difficult for migrants.

As of December, there were more than 182,000 Haitians living in Chile, according to government figures. That does not include undocumented migrants, who are invisible to the government and therefore vulnerable to “abuses when it came to work and housing,” said Álvaro Bellolio, the director of Chile’s National Migration Service.

Work and housing, always hard to get, grew still scarcer during the pandemic. Many Haitians became destitute. Some rent rooms in overcrowded, run-down homes. Others became squatters. Many work as street vendors.

“I researched Chile and its economy before coming,” said Mr. Azor, the Haitian migrant, “but I never imagined we would be living in an overpriced room and sharing a bathroom with 20 others.”

Ivenet Dorsainvil, 34, a professor and spokesman for Haitian groups in Chile, moved to Santiago in 2010 after getting a student visa and a slot in a graduate program. When he moved, Chile was springing back from the global financial crisis, and there were plenty of jobs for immigrants.

But over the years, that changed. Migrants were accused of taking jobs away from Chileans and straining social services.

The country found itself absorbing hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing dire conditions in their own country. And as the ranks of Haitian migrants grew, spiking in 2017 and 2018, many in the largely white nation began to treat them with special disdain, Mr. Dorsainvil said.

Some Haitians, he said, were cleareyed about the risks of trying to make it into the United States. “People are selling the few things they have and leaving with their children,” Mr. Dorsainvil said. “They say they’d rather die than keep being humiliated here.”

Waleska Ureta, the director of the Jesuit Service for Migrants, said Chile could have done more to set up Haitians for success.

“This was a failed experience of inclusion,” Ms. Ureta said. “In Chile, Haitians are facing cultural and social discrimination, even at a government level, and racism in workplaces and on the streets.”

Phalone, the hairdresser, said that by the time her group, traveling by bus, reached the Darién Gap — a 100-mile stretch of marshlands and mountainous forest along Colombia’s border with Panama — it had grown to about 100 people, including Haitians who had been living in Brazil.

At that dangerous juncture, they ditched their suitcases and packed essential belongings and food into backpacks. Colombian smugglers charged them in dollars to guide them on foot to the Panamanian border, a weeklong crossing along trails with markers.

“Many people have died in accidents on this route, which is very slippery when it rains,” Phalone said. “It was a very hard and dangerous experience.”

In Panama, she heard accounts of migrants being robbed and raped.

Phalone left Chile in May. By early August, she and her group had crossed the border in Texas, and got into the United States, where they live now, in the hope of getting asylum in the United States.

Haitians say the process of obtaining legal residency in Chile has become much harder under President Sebastián, who took office in late 2018. Between January and July of this year, seven percent of the permanent residency permits issued by the government went to Haitians, down from 20 percent last year.

The government says residency permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. With the great exodus of Venezuelans fleeing their country’s collapsed economy, most of the permits are going to them.

Haitians, however, see the decline as a clear sign that they’re unwanted, Mr. Azor said.

His brother Gregorio, 26, tried for six years to find the kind of a stable job in Chile that could lead to legal residence. In June, he gave up, and set out for the United States.

“It’s a way to pressure us to leave,” Mr. Azor said.