LES CAYES, Haiti – The images of U.S. border agents using aggressive tactics to keep Haitian migrants from crossing the Rio Grande have rippled across the country and rocked the Biden administration.
But in Les Cayes, a port city in southern Haiti devastated by last month's 7.2-magnitude earthquake, there are more urgent, more dire concerns.
"I lost everything. I don't have a house to go to," said Bernade Jean, a mother of three. She has been living in a temporary camp since Aug. 14, when the quake struck Haiti's southern peninsula, deepening the country's humanitarian and political crises.
Jean, who worked as a trader before the disaster, now faces a daily struggle for survival in the camp, home to about 250 displaced Haitian families.
"I cannot find water, medicine or food assistance," she said. Others in the camp are equally desperate as they cope with unhygienic conditions and wait anxiously for the arrival of assistance from local officials or aid groups.
The earthquake killed more than 2,200 people, injured thousands more and destroyed more than 130,000 homes, along with roads and other infrastructure, according to the United Nations. But more than razing building and destroying lives, the quake fueled a growing sense of desperation in Haiti, already wracked by poverty, gang violence, and the shocking assassination in July of the country's president, Jovenel Moïse.
His successor, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, has become embroiled in the investigation into Moïse's murder. And Henry's government is struggling to meet the needs of disaster victims.
Biden's border crisis
Against this backdrop, President Joe Biden's administration has come under searing criticism for its response to the arrival of thousands of Haitian migrants at the U.S. southern border.
White House officials have warned Haitians not to try to come to the U.S. illegally. And Biden's advisers have relied on a Trump administration policy, adopted during the pandemic, to send Haitians back to their country without allowing them to make an asylum claim.
On Thursday, the U.S. special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned his post over what he called the Biden administration's "inhumane" decision to repatriate thousands of Haitian migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.
"The people of Haiti, mired in poverty, hostage to terror, kidnappings, robberies, and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances, simply cannot support the forced infusion of thousands of returned migrants lacking food, shelter, and money without additional, avoidable human tragedy," Foote wrote.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he appreciated “the passion” that Foote brought to his work in Haiti.
“I think we actually see eye to eye on the fundamental need to support the Haitian people,” Blinken said Thursday during a news conference in New York, where he was attending meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly's 76th annual session.
Blinken said Foote’s ideas were not ignored but were considered as part of the difficult foreign policy questions raised by Haiti's multiple crises.
“The level of desperation among the migrants is something that can’t help but powerfully affect all of us,” Blinken said. “Both on a personal and institutionally, we are committed to doing all we can to support the people of Haiti."
Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said Biden has sent "mixed messages" when it comes to immigration. The president criticized the Trump administration's hardline approach to immigration as inhumane during the campaign, but he has kept some of those policies in place.
"The Trump administration's policies on immigration had so much defined his presidency that just the election of Biden" led some to believe the U.S. would be more welcoming. Smugglers have taken advantage of that narrative, lying to desperate migrants about their prospects for winning asylum.
Nowhere has the confusion and contradictions been more apparent than with Haitian migrants. In May, the Biden administration granted temporary protected status to Haitians already living in the United States, many of whom fled after the 2010 earthquake. At the time, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the U.S. would not force Haitians to return to a country riven by "security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and lack of basic resources."
Yet many of the newly arrived migrants have been quickly expelled, a move that Democrats, refugee groups, and now Biden's own envoy have blasted as heartless.
Experts say that many of those migrants fled Haiti years ago, in the wake of other natural disasters. A 2010 earthquake displaced more than 1.5 million people from the island nation and prompted many to leave Haiti for South and Central America. But with economic opportunities drying up in Latin America as the pandemic continues, many of those Haitians are now seeking asylum in the U.S.
"They’re almost all coming from Brazil and Chile," Chishti said.
As of Friday, Mayorkas said DHS had conducted 17 expulsion flights to Haiti with about 2,000 individuals sent back. An estimated 8,000 migrants decided to return to Mexico voluntarily, he said, and about 12,400 will have their cases heard by immigration judge to determine if they should be removed or permitted to remain in the U.S.
Mayorkas said there were no longer any migrants in the makeshift camp under the Del Rio bridge.
'We are in the shadows'
A fresh refugee surge may be coming soon if the situation in the Les Cayes camp is any indication.
“All my savings are under the rubble," said 68-year-old Abel Dieudonné. "The authorities did nothing. My house is destroyed. My little girls couldn't help me. I can't find any water."
Théard Marie Rose Germite, secretary of the commission that manages the camp, said officials have identified more than 651 children on site and more displaced people are arriving.
"There are the disabled, the elderly and pregnant women. We are victims. Victims of corruption and mismanagement of the state," Germite said. "There is an urgent need to listen to our voice and our pain."
"We are in the shadows," she added.
The earthquake survivors did not want to talk about the scenes of the U.S. border patrol on horseback. And while they don't like the U.S. hostility on display, that hasn't dampened their own desires to flee.
A few kilometers from Les Cayes, the town of Maniche is consumed by mourning. The health center, the parish and the schools were completely destroyed. The residents are almost all homeless.
"All my faithful are devastated," said Francois Gary, pastor of the Church of God in Maniche, one of the largest churches in the area. "They cannot find assistance." He said he was trying to find slabs of tin and wooden posts to build temporary shelters.
Chishti said the "stark reality of the conditions in Haiti" will present an ongoing dilemma for Biden.
"The power of migration from Haiti to the U.S. is ever present. And the repeat coups and the repeat natural disasters only adds to the tragedy," he said. Biden seems to want to implement a kinder immigration policy, but he doesn't want to invite uncontrolled migration – and the political headache that comes with it.
"The president and this administration is faced with some really bad choices, both in humanitarian terms, in legal terms and in political terms," he said.
Contributing: Lauren Villagran, Mabinty Quarshie and Matthew Brown
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Haiti residents focus on survival more than Texas border crisis