PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — He crossed the Mexican border into Texas only two weeks ago, joyous at the prospect of building anew in the United States. Now part of the first wave of deportees rapidly ejected by the Biden administration amid a fresh surge at the border, Johnson Bordes, 23, stepped off a Boeing 737 on Sunday and into the Haitian capital, terrified by a city torn apart by violence in a homeland he could barely remember.
Like many deportees arriving on charter flights at the airport in Port-au-Prince, 15 minutes from neighborhoods controlled by brutal armed gangs, Bordes’s family left Haiti in the great migration after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. He was 12 when they left, first for the Dominican Republic, then on to Chile, where he was living with his mother and brother when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Encouraged by relatives in the United States, the family set out on a 4,500-mile trek to the U.S. border — never imagining the road would lead back to the devastated country they left more than a decade ago.
“How could they bring us back here?” he asked. “This is an injustice. I don’t even know where we are going to sleep tonight.”
He mingled with other confused deportees, many of whom hadn’t seen Haiti in years and now spoke Spanish or Portuguese better than Haitian Creole. Several families told The Washington Post that they were never told they were being deported back to Haiti.
“If Biden continues with these deportations, he’s no better than Trump,” Bordes said. “I’m afraid for my safety here. I don’t even know this country anymore.”
They began landing Sunday in a nation that some describe as Somalia of the Caribbean — a failed state suffering a humanitarian emergency that critics say is too dangerous and unstable for the thousands being deported.
Recognition of the conditions led the Biden administration as recently as May to grant temporary protected status to tens of thousands of undocumented Haitians in the United States. At the time, officials cited “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources” in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Since then, conditions in Haiti have deteriorated sharply — leading critics to describe the deportations now as contradictory.
Haiti suffered the still unsolved assassination of its president in July and a devastating earthquake that killed 2,200 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes, schools and churches in August. Violent street gangs have seized neighborhoods and key roads, torching homes and spreading a plague of rapes, kidnappings and killings that have caused thousands of residents to flee.
The government to which the deportees are returning has teetered on the verge of collapse amid an internal power struggle and a judicial request to indict the sitting prime minister in connection to the slaying of President Jovenel Moïse. The United Nations has sounded the alarm over a lack of resources to aid earthquake victims, including thousands of women and children left homeless, in the country’s devastated south.
Some here describe the large-scale deportations back to Haiti as something they might have expected under President Donald Trump, who was dismissive of Haitian immigrants. That it’s happening under President Biden, they said, made it sting even more.
“It’s shocking,” said Ralph P. Chevry, a board member of the Haiti Center for Socio Economic Policy in Port-au-Prince. “I understand that the U.S. needs to protect its borders, but the way Haiti is right now, this is the last place to send anyone. The Central Bank has no money left. The gangs are taking over the country. The kidnappings are surging again.
“I wouldn’t say it’s criminal, but what the United States is doing is at the very least inhumane.”
U.S. officials have countered that strong action is needed to deter a surge of desperate migrants traversing the Mexican border into the Texas town of Del Rio. Many are Haitians who fled the country years ago and are now streaming out from South American countries devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Haitian authorities said they would do what they could for the deportees, but pointedly said they were being repatriated against their will.
“These people do not accept the forced flight back to Haiti,” Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, head of Haiti’s migration office, told reporters in Port-au-Prince on Sunday, adding that his team expected flights to ramp up to as many as six per day by Tuesday.
“For these people, Haiti is hell,” he said.
In an email, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the deportation of 327 people and said “these flights will continue on a regular basis.” The agency did not comment on whether the Haitian deportees had been informed of their repatriations, or whether Haiti was safe enough for deportees.
In comments to CNN on Sunday, however, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the deportations, saying the damage from the recent earthquake had been “rather geographically limited” and that an analysis of the situation on the ground had determined that “country conditions” allowed for the repatriations.
A DHS official told The Post on Friday that the deportations would start with up to three flights per day.
“We have reiterated that our borders are not open, and people should not make the dangerous journey,” spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa wrote in an email. “Irregular migration poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of border communities and to the lives of migrants themselves and should not be attempted.”
Giuseppe Loprete, Haiti mission chief for the International Organization for Migration, said 327 Haitians arrived Sunday on three flights from the United States, with an estimated 300 per day to follow in the coming weeks. The organization is bracing for 14,000 returnees from the United States, Mexico and elsewhere, a sharp increase from the 6,000 Haitians who had been sent back since mid-March of 2018.
He said the new arrivals were being given the equivalent of $50 in cash and another $50 in cellular phone transfers (they’re provided with a cellphone if they don’t have one), a hot meal, hygiene kits and psychological counseling.
“When they realize they are coming back to Haiti, it’s really difficult for them,” Loprete said. “Some of them, they don’t have any contacts anymore with their families, or they live in areas that are now no longer accessible because of the earthquake or the gangs.”
In tweets late Saturday, Prime Minister Ariel Henry — under fire at home, but effectively backed by the United States — said in French that “we are very concerned about the extremely difficult conditions in which several thousand of our #compatriots are living on the US-Mexico border.”
In Haitian Creole, however, he sounded a note of commiseration.
“We must unite to give the #country a chance for our brothers and sisters to cease these kinds of humiliations,” he said. “I share their suffering, while saying welcome to them. Home is home.”
Many of those who arrived Sunday described their deportations as happening at breakneck speed.
Sonia Piard, 43, arrived in Texas last Monday, after a weeks-long trip by bus and foot from Chile. Her husband worked construction there for six years before she and the children joined him three years ago. They sold their furniture and dug into their life savings to finance the $10,000 trip. The most arduous part was a five-day trek through jungle.
“We saw people drown in the river,” she said.
Piard, her husband and their children, ages 10, 8 and 7, had spent five days sleeping under a bridge in Texas when U.S. authorities rounded them up on Friday. They were given aluminum sheets at a detention center, she said, and space on a cement floor to sleep.
On Sunday, she said, her family was taken to a plane but not told where it was going. Two other families interviewed by The Post also said they were not informed of the plane’s destination. One of them said they were told they were being transferred to another detention center in Florida.
Piard said her family’s home in Les Cayes on Haiti’s southwestern peninsula collapsed in last month’s earthquake. With gangs controlling the roads from Port-au-Prince to the country’s south, they were stuck in the capital without a place to sleep Sunday night.
She said she and her family decided to travel from Chile to Texas because they’d heard that “President Biden was letting people in.” She said Sunday she felt disillusioned, as if she and her family had been “kidnapped to be sent back to Haiti.”
“They did not even tell us what they were doing,” she said, in tears. “They said our names, and they said they are bringing us somewhere else. We did not know we were going back to Haiti. Nobody told us we were going back to Haiti. We need to go back to Chile, but now we have no money left and no home. What will become of my children?”
“How could Biden do this to us?” she asked.
Faiola reported from Miami. Nick Miroff in Washington contributed to this report.