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Why Haitian Migrants Have Been Making The Trek From Chile To The U.S. Border

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Some 20,000 more Haitian migrants are making their way to the United States. Many are in a beach town in Colombia, waiting for boats to ferry them on to the next step of the dangerous and expensive journey north. Some of these Haitian migrants began their journey in Chile, where they lived for years. So we're going to visit Santiago, Chile's capital, to explore what this story looks like from there.

Yvenet Dorsainvil is a language professor in Santiago. He's Haitian and has been living in Chile for about a decade. When we spoke with him in Spanish earlier today, he said he could feel people's absence in the streets.

YVENET DORSAINVIL: (Through interpreter) The plazas where Haitians go to talk, to debate politics or soccer, to talk about religion - now you just don't see people there anymore. You don't see Haitians. We started noticing that about three or four months ago.

SHAPIRO: Dorsainvil says it's been difficult for Haitians to find work and live peacefully in Chile. There is intense racial discrimination, and Chile's immigration system has changed, pushing many people to leave. Those who arrived in Del Rio, Texas, earlier this month did not get the welcome they were hoping for. The U.S. deported planeloads of people back to Haiti. Mexico sent buses full of people to cities further south. U.S. Border Patrol agents are under investigation for their harsh treatment of migrants. Dorsainvil says Haitians in Chile heard about all of that.

DORSAINVIL: (Through interpreter) The thing is that many times, people don't have another option, right? And they prefer to go try their luck instead of staying here, not doing anything.

SHAPIRO: And so, he says, hundreds of Haitians in Chile are still setting out on the trip north every day.

DORSAINVIL: (Through interpreter) A lot of people just want to go anywhere. But historically, the U.S. is the place Haitian migrants go. The majority have at least one relative there. People also like the U.S. because it's safe.

SHAPIRO: That kind of safety and a good economy are what initially drew Haitians to Chile after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

IGNACIO GALLEGOS: The Haitian community is one of the first communities that Chile has received that don't speak Spanish, that don't have the language.

SHAPIRO: Ignacio Gallegos is a journalist in Santiago, Chile, and he told me Chileans had a difficult time accepting Haitians when they first arrived a decade ago.

GALLEGOS: We were kind of used to getting a lot of migrants from Peru, from Venezuela, from Argentina even. But on Haiti, we have that difficulty, and it's kind of become a cultural shock for Chileans, I think. So the first couple of years had that cultural difficulty, but their lives were considerably easier in terms of finding a job or settling in than it is right now.

SHAPIRO: So what changed? What's different right now that sent thousands of people going north?

GALLEGOS: Well, one big change is policy - the migration policy by the government of Sebastian Pinera. So for the last couple of years, Pinera's administration has been pushing for a tougher stance on migration, and the Venezuelans and Haitians have been the communities most affected by that. For instance, for the last couple of years, Haitians have had to - they do need a visa to come in, which didn't happen before. They could just come in with their passport. But since 2018, that changed and now they need a tourist visa to get in the country. And there's also a change in how the government speaks about immigration.

So when Sebastian Pinera first started, he was kind of, you could say, even inviting some migrant communities, especially Venezuelans, to come into the country. And now, since that stance has changed and his rhetoric about immigration has changed so much, that also kind of pushes people to try to go back to Haiti. The government has been pushing a policy of return home, so they have helped them to go back to Haiti. And that's been happening for the last year or so. And at the same time, they have been pursuing people who come into the country illegally through raids and such.

SHAPIRO: And so what do you think the calculus is that these Haitians who've been living in Chile for many years are facing right now?

GALLEGOS: One thing is a stronger sense of that the Chilean community no longer wants so many immigrants, and they're in that stance. Haitians are the ones that are more, you could say, ostracized from the rest of the community or alienated from the rest of the community because they were - the language barrier is one thing, and it's more difficult for them to find jobs, and they're more discriminated against because of the color of their skin as well. And also the pandemic - how it's affected the Chilean economy in a way that many formal or informal jobs have been closed. And many of the migrant communities are very much affected by that, especially Haitians.

SHAPIRO: Dorsainvil, who we heard from earlier, says his community's struggle pains him.

DORSAINVIL: (Through interpreter) Honestly, I don't sleep much. A lot of Haitians here don't. We spend all night talking about what we need to do to address these problems.

SHAPIRO: For those who do stay in Chile, Dorsainvil has written a dictionary, Spanish to Creole, with the hopes of helping Chileans and Haitians understand each other - at least the language. And he says, hopefully one day, the culture, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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