For Haitians hoping to get to the U.S. mainland, the island of 3.7 million people has a black market that supplies fake passports, driver’s licenses and stolen Social Security numbers. In addition, the island’s governor in early March endorsed a proposal to allow immigrants living illegally in the U.S. territory to apply for a provisional driver’s license. Pilier said that proposal has in fact drawn many migrants to Puerto Rico.
In March, U.S. federal officials rescued 71 Haitian migrants stranded on a cluster of islands just west of Puerto Rico, dehydrated and with bruises and scratches. The rescue came a week after 67 migrants from Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were found in the same cluster of islands, including a Haitian woman who died.
On the black-sand beach in the fishing village of Leogane west of the Haitian capital, groups of men build wooden migrant boats, sawing and hacking away with machetes and picks. The 30-foot-long boats, whose frames resemble the rib cage of a small dinosaur, are purchased by smugglers for around $12,000 and then taken to northern Haiti to find passengers. One boat builder said he has four or five regular customers who buy the crafts.
Many Haitian farmers lost their crops during last year’s hurricane season, causing food supplies to drop and prices to rise in a country of 10 million people that is still recovering from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
The number of Haitians who don’t have enough to eat to maintain a healthy diet has grown from 1.9 million at the end of 2009 to 6.7 million today, said Myrta Kaulard, the country’s director for the United Nations’ World Food Program.
“Migration is a very important coping mechanism,” she said.
Nasere Severian, a 48-year-old boat builder, himself took three unsuccessful trips to Miami in the 1990s when political instability in Haiti drove out-migration to a peak of 37,618 in 1992, according to U.S. Coast Guard data.
“Sometimes we build two or three boats a year,” Severian said. “At the same time we can go a year without getting a customer.”
Then Severian offered this: “If it were easier to reach Miami I would try to go there every day — even if that means I die.”
In another major migration trend, Brazil also has become an increasingly common destination for Haitians since the 2010 quake. The South American nation initially opened its doors to Haitians seeking asylum, then later said it would issue 1,200 visas annually to allow them to work there for a five-year period. More than 4,000 Haitians have moved to Brazil, both legally and illegally, since the disaster.
Etienne Brutus, a 26-year-old unemployed father of three, was among the 78 Haitian migrants caught leaving the Dominican Republic last month, en route to Puerto Rico.
He spoke in Spanish to The Associated Press by telephone while sitting on a bus full of migrants traveling from the Dominican Republic’s southeast coast to the capital of Santo Domingo for processing before being driven back to Haiti. Dominican authorities provided an AP reporter with the cell number of a naval officer, who then passed the phone to Brutus. But the signal was weak, making it impossible to obtain more than a few details about his situation.
Brutus said that when he approached smugglers about leaving Haiti, they told him they weren’t traveling north, and that their only destination was east to Puerto Rico. He agreed to make the trip, and crossed into the Dominican Republic for the sea voyage.
“I don’t have work, I don’t have a room, I’m hungry,” he said of his life in Haiti. “If I can get to Puerto Rico, amen. If I can get a room, a job and papers, I’m leaving.”