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Thousands Of Haitians Trying To Get Into The U.S. Are Stuck In Tijuana


We turn now to a migrant crisis on California's doorstep. A lot of Haitians have amassed at the U.S.-Mexico border, many more are on the way. With last week's devastating hurricane in Haiti, immigration activists are urging U.S. authorities to let the Haitians in. But for this particular group, that's now unlikely because of a recent immigration policy change. NPR correspondent Carrie Kahn in Mexico City has followed the Haitian migrants' plight for months as they travel not directly from the Caribbean, but from South America.

Good morning.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So I gather there are now thousands of Haitians at the Tijuana border with San Diego here in California. Why this city, Tijuana? And may I say, it seems like quite a trek.

KAHN: It is quite a trek. It is a 7,000-mile journey. Most of the Haitians are coming from Brazil. And that's where they had gone in the tens of thousands after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Many of them worked building stadiums for the World Cup and the recent Olympics, but that work has dried up. And Brazil is racked with economic and political turmoil now. And many of them have decided to head north to the U.S.

And they make that incredible 10-nation trek on boats, buses, cars, walking, any way they can through dangerous jungles and mountains. And they've made their way all the way to Tijuana. They hear through social media where to go. And this has become the preferred entry point into the United States. And that's where they've headed.

MONTAGNE: Well, U.S. authorities have generally been letting Haitians who showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border stay in the U.S. on a humanitarian basis. Now though, they're detaining and deporting them. What exactly is this change of policy towards Haitians and why?

KAHN: Well, it has to do with the amount of numbers coming in. This was before the devastating hurricane that just happened last week. And authorities said that the policy changed because conditions in Haiti had improved.

So now these people who've made this journey are at the border and they're desperate. And they don't believe that the policy has changed because they've heard from their family members that just did it and are released to other family members. So they're still trying to turn themselves in.

MONTAGNE: And what about Mexico, now that it has all these Haitians crowding into the city of Tijuana?

KAHN: Well, they have been overwhelmed, too. They say that there's probably about 2,000 in the city. Aid workers think that there are more around 5,000. So far, the Mexicans have not made any concrete plans to deal with the flow. What they try to do is assist them in securing appointments at the U.S. border so that it's somewhat orderly. But U.S. authorities can only see about 75 to 100 migrants a day. The Mexican authorities say about 300 are entering into the country daily. So there's quite a backup now at the border. When they show up and they ask for a date with the U.S. authorities, they're getting a date five to six weeks away.

There are about five shelters in the city, and they are packed to capacity right now. I talked to one Catholic father who runs a shelter with 140 beds. And he says when that fills up, he lets people in. Then they sleep on the floor, they sleep on - in the courtyard. And hundreds sleep nightly in the streets of Tijuana.

MONTAGNE: And is there any suggestion that Hurricane Matthew and the pain that's been inflicted on Haiti, that that would change the U.S. policy?

KAHN: NPR asked that question to the Department of Homeland Security. They say they have no further announcements at this time, and will assess its impact on current policies as appropriate. Immigration attorneys are starting petitions. Charity groups are putting calls out to politicians, asking them to halt the detention policy in light of the devastation from the hurricane.

MONTAGNE: Carrie, thanks very much.

KAHN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on