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Haitian immigrants have been massing along the U.S.-Mexican border for months, seeking humanitarian relief. Over the past year, more than 5,000 have sought entry into the United States, a 500 percent increase over the previous year. But they are not likely to make it into the country. U.S. Immigration is locking them up and deporting them back to Haiti. But still, as NPR's John Burnett reports, the Haitians keep coming.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: After the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, thousands of its citizens migrated to Brazil looking for work. As Brazil slipped into recession in recent years, many of them have hit the road again. They're making the 6,000-mile journey to the U.S. border by every means of conveyance.
PIERRE SMITH: (Through interpreter) They pay for busses. They pay for planes, for bicycles, for boots, horses. They walk for five days.
BURNETT: That's a 34-year-old accountant from Port-au-Prince named Pierre Smith, speaking through a translator. He's staying at an immigrant shelter on a hilltop in Nogales, Mexico, while he waits to cross into Nogales, Ariz. These Haitians want the same generous benefits that were extended to their countrymen after the earthquake, when they got protection from deportation and temporary work permits. But the U.S. welcome mat is gone, and the new wave of Haitians is in for a harsh reception. The Homeland Security Department announced new rules in September. All Haitians who show up at the border without papers and who don't ask for asylum are detained.
Is he prepared to be locked up in an immigration jail for months once he crosses?
Pierre Smith says yes. There are nearly 4,500 Haitians currently in ICE custody. And he's about to join them.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He said when they get there, they don't mind staying in the detention. He said they're looking for a better life.
BURNETT: As a result of the Haitian influx and a continuing surge of Central Americans on the Texas-Mexico border, the government has run out of detention space. This is why the Haitians are bottlenecked all along the western U.S.-Mexico border. In Nogales, immigration agents only grant three appointments a day - why? There's nowhere to put them. Father Sean Carroll, a Jesuit and director of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Ariz., has an answer.
SEAN CARROLL: Instead of looking for more detention space, why not give them humanitarian parole so that they can work in the U.S. and have a more dignified way of life?
BURNETT: The reason is compassion fatigue. The United States let 60,000 Haitians in after the earthquake. Now officials have heard as many as 40,000 more have left Brazil for the United States. The U.S. has to find jail beds for them before they can be deported. In recent months, the total number of immigrants in detention has jumped from 31,000 to 41,000. Joanne Lin is with the American Civil Liberties Union.
JOANNE LIN: So this is an exponential, unprecedented increase in immigration detention rate.
BURNETT: Earlier this month, Homeland Security announced it's signing contracts for more detention space in the same private, for-profit jails that have generated enormous controversy. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a report last month, which cited testimony about degrading living conditions, bad food, poor medical care and understaffing at the private jails where immigrants are housed. It calls for a halt to punitive detention for immigrants who are not criminals.
ICE maintains the for-profit lockups are a, quote, "safe and humane environment for all those in its custody." Back at the shelter in Nogales, Mexico, Pierre Smith eats chicken and rice, charges his cell phone and waits for his appointment with a blue-shirted immigration agent. He prays that somehow he'll be able to join his relatives in South Florida.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: It's better to die than to return to Haiti because life will be really, really, really difficult for them.
BURNETT: The U.S. government had suspended sending Haitians home because of damage caused by Hurricane Matthew. But in recent weeks, ICE has resumed deportations. Since late October, about 200 Haitian nationals have been repatriated, with many more to come. John Burnett, NPR News, Nogales.
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