Far From Home: The Long Trek Of Haitian Migrants

Spotlight / Editorial Spotlight
John Moore
Getty Images
Dec 30, 2021
Getty Images staff photographer and special correspondent John Moore spent much of 2021 documenting the migration of Haitians from adopted lands in South America to the U.S. ‑ Mexican border. He shares his reporting below.
The sudden appearance of some 15,000 Haitian immigrants at a camp on the Del Rio, Texas side of the U.S.‑Mexico border in September became a defining news event on the topic of irregular immigration to the United States, which in 2021 reached its highest level in decades. The Biden administration had struggled to control the narrative all year, even banning media from federal border lands as thousands of people streamed across to seek asylum and economic opportunities. For the migrants awaiting a decision on asylum in the United States or deportation back to Haiti, this would be a crucial juncture in their lives, but just the latest chapter in a much larger story. To bring a broader context to what was unfolding, Getty Images would send me on a journey of my own, documenting the Haitian expat community in Chile to show the reasons why they would pack up and travel more than 7,000 miles to reach that Texas camp. I would also travel twice to the most difficult, often perilous part of the migrant trail: the mountainous rainforest of the Darien Gap at the Colombia‑Panama border. Finally, I would again document migrants’ arrival to the U.S. border, but this time in Arizona, where they would walk through a gap in the wall to seek their dreams in America.
They came to Chile to work. When the 2010 earthquake destroyed Haiti’s capital Port‑au ‑Prince, many began migrating to South America, including to Chile, to take advantage of the country’s growing economy and the permissive immigration policies. In the last four years, the center‑right government tightened visa restrictions, making it difficult for foreign‑born workers to renew permits. I met Widken Maxeus, who had come to Chile in 2016 with his wife. They got permanent residence status early, before the strict regulations. He said that employers have increasingly passed him over for work, as public resentment against immigrants, stoked by politicians, grew nationwide. Many in the immigrant community and Haitians in particular are now lacking permits  and are working illegally in the informal sector, mostly in manual labor jobs that few Chileans would take up.
I spent time in several predominantly Haitian “tomas,” often referred to in English as squatter camps. The pandemic was especially difficult for this community, as work, which had been plentiful before the scourge, dried up and inflation skyrocketed, both for basic items like food but also for construction materials for building even simple structures. As is often the case in Latin America, these encampments tend to be built on less desirable land, often on mountainsides on the outskirts of the capital, Santiago. Indoor plumbing is scarce, and electricity is hot wired from nearby mainlines. Garbage removal consists of smoldering burn pits which many must pass through on the way to their jobs. Still, with work and patience people built up their homes.
Up to two thirds of the Haitian community in Chile left in 2021 to journey to the United States. Most of those who journeyed north sold their houses to new immigrant arrivals, often from Peru or Venezuela.
The Darien Gap is a 66‑mile stretch of rainforest stretching from Colombia into Panama and is considered the most dangerous part of the journey for migrants traveling from South America to the United States. The Gap was thus named because the Pan‑American Highway was never completed there due to severe terrain, enormous cost and myriad environmental concerns. As migrants trek some five days through the forbidding landscape, torrential downpours lead to flash river flooding, often resulting in drownings along the way. Reports of robberies and rapes from armed gangs are common, especially after migrants pass the remote mountain border crossing into Panama. More than 70,000 migrants, most of them Haitians, traveled through the Darien Gap in 2021 according to Panamanian authorities.
At the trailhead to the Darien Gap, immigrants spend one night at a base camp before setting off into the jungle. Both excited to get moving and nervous of what awaits, they sleep soon after dark and rise at 2am for final preparations for their sunrise journey. On the first day trekking with them, I tried to count the number of river crossings but then realized that for most of the arduous journey, the Rio Muerto is actually the trail. At first it is only knee high, flowing shallow and wide but gradually as the slope steepens the river narrows. Migrants fight against the strong current, often up to their chests. Soon the water takes its toll. The enormity of the Darien Gap and is hard to visualize in a single image, but a view of the humanity, streaming into the maw of the jungle provides a glimpse.
After climbing a muddy hill known as Caracoli, a girl collapsed from exhaustion, crying out for her mother who had been escorted further down the trail only minutes earlier. Guides eased the child down the slope, then carried her forward. They were only halfway through the first day’s trek that would take them at least five more to emerge on the other side of the forest. For them, there was no turning back. I cannot describe how difficult that moment was to see, knowing the worst of their journey still lay ahead of them.
For the adult Haitians making this journey on their own, those who had been working in tough manual labor jobs in Chile or Brazil, the tough walking was a challenge, but at least doable. For those trekking with their families and for those less fit, it was a crucible. If you’ve ever heard the often‑throwaway phrase “I’d do anything for my kids,” climbing the mountain trail from Colombia into Panama embodies it.
Weeks later I returned on a second trip to the Darien with permission to go further up the path with new groups of migrants who trek through daily. With a guide and a “mochilero” porter, I climbed and camped with Haitians at various points along the trail, including atop the mountain near the Panamanian border. Water was nowhere to be found and had to be carried up from the river at the foot of the slope. I brought water purification tablets for myself, but the heat and humidity made it difficult to remain hydrated. My most durable camera glitched out not because of rain or river, but sweat. Once they crossed the border into Panama, the migrants would lose the assistance of their Colombian guides and become more vulnerable to armed gangs and the hazards, with more difficult days ahead. There I could not follow.
I stood chest deep in the middle the Rio Grande, as a steady flow of Haitian immigrants waded through while crossing the US‑Mexico border. Numbering up to 15,000, they had been sleeping for almost a week under a bridge in the heat of a late Texas summer, with few provisions and reports of deportations. The adults began traveling back into Mexico to get supplies.
Some families, hearing that U.S. immigration authorities had begun to deport them, fled back into Mexico to pursue asylum claims there.  U.S. Border Patrol agents, mounted on horseback and in airboats, did nothing to impede their departure. Those who stayed in the United States would face a true test of their faith ‑ the moment when they would be deported or, just maybe, be allowed to stay. Temporary shelter was constructed from tree branches, Carrizo cane, blankets and tarps. Access to the Del Rio camp was incredibly challenging. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security largely banned media coverage in the camp. To reach it, I paddled across the Rio Grande myself from the Mexican side. Haitian migrants in the camp assisted me during my nighttime visit, forming a group around me to shield me from U.S. Border Patrol agents mounted on horseback. Eventually a drone overhead spotted me in the crowd and began to follow.  A Haitian women said that a group of agents wearing headlamps was quickly approaching my position. It was time for me to head back to Mexico, the drone buzzing overhead as I splashed through the current.

In December I made a final trip to the U.S.‑Mexico border, this time to Yuma, Arizona where Haitian families had begun crossing again months after the Del Rio event. This time, however, the vast majority of them were families with expectant women. Mexican immigration authorities had been detaining thousands of migrants who had traveled up through Central America after the Haitians had crossed the Darien Gap and traveled up through Central America. Families with pregnant women, however, are considered especially vulnerable and the Mexican government facilitated their travel up to the U.S. border to seek asylum with the Americans. Most of the families I spoke with had traveled from either Chile or Brazil, often arriving within weeks of their babies' due dates. In Yuma these Haitians mixed with immigrants arriving from many other countries, and I photographed them interacting with U.S. Border Patrol agents while they were taken into custody. Back in Del Rio months earlier, no media photographs were made of U.S. immigration officials detaining or deporting them.
My visit coincided with a surge of crossings through a gap in the border fence, as smugglers moved people in great numbers ahead of the court‑ordered resumption of the Trump‑era “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers. With some 6,000 immigrants having crossed into Yuma within only a few days, U.S. Border Patrol processing centers were overwhelmed, and they had stopped taking in new arrivals. Many families slept outside next to the fence for several nights awaiting transport, burning tumbleweeds at sunrise to keep warm. One night I accompanied group of Haitian families, including five pregnant women, after they crossed into the U.S. from Mexico, only to get lost in almost total darkness, the border fence glowing in the distance behind them. They could walk no more and collapsed of exhaustion in a cauliflower field. Anxious over their upcoming night outside, which was turning cold, I went to buy groceries and blankets just before the stores closed. I raced back with a carload, hoping I had done some good, only to find their numbers had doubled. I hadn’t bought enough.
Many of these families would be able to apply for asylum in the United States, with their fates to be decided by immigration courts at a later date. For them, the 7,000 miles of journey through deserts and jungles was not in vain, at least for now.
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