Haitians seizing on legal path to US rush to secure passport



PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hundreds of Haitians are flocking daily to the sole immigration office in Port-au-Prince, pressing against the bright blue gate as they strain to hear whether their name is called, hoping they will soon be chosen to live legally in the U.S. under a new immigration plan.

The crowd has swelled ever since U.S. President Joe Biden announced Thursday 5 that the U.S. will accept 30,000 people a month from Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. Those selected will be entitled to work for two years if they have eligible sponsors and pass background checks.

Those selected also will need a passport to travel, prompting the daily rush at the immigration office in Haiti’s capital.

“I’m here to leave Haiti, but I don’t want to risk my life via a boat,” said Jennyfer Leonard, a 30-year-old teacher, referring to how dozens of Haitian migrants smuggled aboard boats have died in recent attempts to reach the U.S.

“It would be nice to leave with my two kids for them to have a future, but I’m not willing to take the risk of them dying along the way,” she said.

So like hundreds of other Haitians in recent days, she opted for the recently announced legal route to the U.S. instead of joining the tens of thousands of Haitians who have been intercepted at the U.S.-Mexico border and deported.

On Wednesday, an aggressive crowd gathered at the immigration officeunder a brutal sun to apply for a passport, pick one up, renew an exisiting one or check on the status of an application.

“Is that my name? Is that my name?” people shouted every time a government official approached the gate and called on someone.

Garry Saint Paul, 25, was among those waiting to pick up his passport.

He previously worked in the neighboring Dominican Republic as a janitor at a hotel until his contract and passport expired, forcing him back to Haiti where he remains unemployed.

“Haiti is under siege,” he said. “Gangs are taking over. Why not leave if you get the opportunity?”

Gangs control an estimated 60% of Port-au-Prince, growing more powerful and violent since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated at his private residence in July 2021. Reported kidnappings soared to more than 1,200 last year, double from the previous year, and 280 killings were reported in November, a monthly record, according to the U.N.

“Life is really difficult,” said Leonard, the teacher, whose brother is a truck driver in Philadelphia and has agreed to be her financial sponsor.

Violence also is a big concern for Salomon Jean-Pierre, a 22-year-old accounting student who stood in line near Leonard.

“The only thing Haiti promises you is death,” he said.

Jean-Pierre doesn’t have a financial sponsor yet, but he contacted his aunt in Atlanta, who said she would talk to his cousin there and see if he could help.

“I am going to get my paperwork ready just in case,” Jean-Pierre said. “I’m hoping for the best, that Haiti will change, but I don’t see a future. … If this works out for me, Atlanta, here I come!”

Poverty and hunger are deepening across Haiti, a country or more than 11 million people where more than 60% earn less than $2 a day. Inflation has ballooned into double digits while Haiti grows more politically unstable, with its last democratically elected institution — the Senate — expiring Tuesday.

Promises to hold legislative and general elections have yet to materialize amid concerns over growing violence.

Given the worsening situation, Saint Paul is hoping his brother-in-law in Texas will financially sponsor him for two years. He then plans to remain in the U.S. after his stay expires.

“There’s no way I’m coming back,” he said, adding that he expects the U.S. to renew or extend the humanitarian parole plan. “I know that immigrants are the ones who built America. America is always going to need immigrants.”

Associated Press writer Dánica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

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