PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — You’re lucky, the U.S. officials said. “You’re going to see your family.”
“Everyone was happy,” recalled Jhon Celestin. “But I was not happy. I saw it was a lie.”
The prize was a one-way trip back to the place they had so desperately wanted to escape. And so it was that Celestin arrived in Haiti aboard the last flight Wednesday to the capital of Port-au-Prince, a city the 38-year-old left three years ago in search of a better-paying job to help support his family.
He is among some 2,000 migrants that the U.S. expelled to Haiti this week via more than 17 flights, with more scheduled in upcoming days. Staying in Haiti is not an option for many of them. Like Celestin, they plan to flee their country again as soon as they can.
It had stopped drizzling as Celestin left the airport and stepped out into streets choked with dust and smoke, carrying a bag in one hand and his 2-year-old daughter in the other.
Chloe, born in Chile, looked around quietly at her new surroundings as Celestin and his wife asked to borrow someone’s phone to call a taxi. It would be more expensive, but they didn’t want their toddler riding on a motorcycle — a common means of transport in city where vehicles must veer around smoldering garbage dumps, heavy traffic and the occasional burning barricade.
After a 35-minute ride, they arrived at a house whose basement they would share with a cousin who had been expelled from the U.S. the day before. The home is located a couple blocks away from where 15 people were killed in a shooting rampage in June, including a journalist and political activist. Among those charged was a police officer.
“This is not what I imagined, being here,” said Celestin’s wife, 26-year-old Delta de León, who was born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican father and a Haitian mother. “But here I am, although I hope to leave soon because the one thing I’ve never wanted for my daughter is for her to grow up here.”
Haiti has more than 11 million people; about 60% make less than $2 a day. A cornerstone of its economy is money from Haitians living abroad — $3.8 billion a year, or 35% of the country’s GDP.
The Haiti to which the migrants are returning is more violent, more impoverished and more politically unstable than the one they left. It is struggling to recover from the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck southern Haiti in August, killing more than 2,200 people and destroying or damaging tens of thousands of homes. Thousands of people live in squalid shelters after their homes were razed in recent months as a result of rampant gang violence.
Celestin and his wife don’t plan on staying long.
On his first day back in Haiti, Celestin spent several hours sprawled on the queen-sized bed he shared with his wife and daughter. He chatted on the phone with his sister, who lives in Chile, and with friends elsewhere as he planned his family’s departure. He paused only to get a haircut and to figure out how to pick up a money transfer, since he had previously sent all his identification documents to his family in Miami in hopes he would be reunited with them with this month.
The new plan is to return to Chile, where he built homes as a construction worker after obtaining a visa. With the pandemic drying up jobs and freezing the economy, the family decided to try their luck at the U.S.-Mexico border, traveling by foot, bus and boat at night for about a month.
“What hurt me the most, what frustrated me the most, was the dead people I saw,” migrants who died along the way, said de León.
The toll of that trip, the conditions at the border and the recent deportation flight with a sick child — Chloe had developed an incessant cough while the family camped under a Texas bridge — meant de León didn’t sleep much her first night in Haiti.
“I cried because I don’t want to be here,” she said.
De León intends to cross the border into the Dominican Republic with her daughter as soon as possible to reunite with her father, sister and brother while her husband flies ahead to Chile.
But first, the family planned to go to the coastal city of Jacmel in southern Haiti to see more relatives, a risky trip because it entailed crossing gang-controlled territory. Buses often form convoys for safety, and sometimes pay gangs for safe passage. The violence in that neighborhood has reached such high levels that Doctors Without Borders recently closed its clinic there after 15 years.
Breakfast on that first morning in Haiti consisted of spaghetti and bits of avocado. Normally, Chloe has milk and fruit, but de León said she was waiting on a money transfer to buy some basic food items. She worried about her daughter’s health, and about her future.
“The future I want for her is a better life, a more comfortable one, the kind a poor person can give their children,” she said. “If that life has to be in the United States, so be it. If it has to be in Chile, let it be in Chile. But let it be a better life.”
On their second day in Haiti, the couple decided to take the risk and go to Jacmel. A minibus waited as Celestin and de León grabbed their bags and put on new shoes they had bought earlier that morning: black-and-white sneakers for him, white sandals for her.
“Na pale!” Celestin’s cousin called out to them in Creole — “We’ll talk!” And the couple boarded the minibus, placing their little girl between them as they embarked on the treacherous road to Jacmel.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.