PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - John Stevens Val borrowed $3,000 from friends and family and trekked through 10 countries to make his way to the United States, where he hoped life would be better than in Haiti, his impoverished homeland.
But in the end he landed in a U.S. immigration detention center and was deported back to Haiti, deep in debt and struggling to integrate, like so many other Haitians.
Val, 28, left home after a devastating 2010 earthquake that wrecked the economy of the Caribbean nation, the poorest in the Western hemisphere. He worked in Brazil at a supermarket for about two years until a crash in Latin America’s biggest economy led him to pack his bags again.
After gathering the cash, he made his way via, plane, boat, three days of walking through forests, and a dozen buses before reaching Arizona.
For seven years after the quake, U.S. policy protected Haitians from deportation unless they were convicted of a serious crime or posed a national security threat. Encouraged by the policy, between October 2015 and December 2016, more than 13,500 Haitians like Val made the perilous trip, up from just a few hundred in the previous year.
In September, in response to the surge in Haitian immigrants, the United States restarted deportation flights for newly arrived Haitians who do not have a case for seeking asylum.
More Haitians arrived late last year, with more than 7,000 crossing the border between October and December alone, creating a backlog that will take months for the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to clear.
For Val, who was still en route through South America when the shift occurred, the new policy came as a huge shock.
“You lose all of your money and now you do not even succeed,” said Val, sitting in the library of non-profit organization, the Jesuit Service for Migrants. Back in a country with 40 percent unemployment, Val was worried.
“It’s not easy to live in Haiti. It’s complicated. There is no aid; there is no organization that can help us in one way or the other. We’re here. We live poorly,” Val said.
To make things worse, shortly after deportations resumed, Category-4 Hurricane Matthew trashed Haiti’s southwest.
After one flight carrying some of the first Haitians to be repatriated arrived a few weeks ago, some of the 60 passengers sobbed, while others looked furious, clinging to gray sweatshirts issued in the U.S. detention centers.
“They spent a lot of money. It’s like a broken dream. They left thinking they would stay 20, 30, 40 years or never return,” said Adelson Lorgeat, the technical and research director for Haiti’s National Office of Migration. “They consider it to be a dishonor, a defeat.”
Lorgeat advises deportees at Port-au-Prince airport but said the office did not have funds to provide additional support.
In November, of some 40,000 people in immigration detention, more than 4,400 were Haitians, according to the then U.S. secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson.
Between October 2016 and Jan. 16, 2017, 1,513 Haitians were deported, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said. As of Jan. 16, 4,060 were in U.S. detention, an indication more are crossing from Mexico, where even more are massed on the border.
Val said he had not ruled out leaving Haiti once more for different shores, if he had the money.
“If I don’t have any opportunities, I’ll leave,” he said.
Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Leslie Adler