TAMPA — Biko Joseph fled danger and found discrimination.
Now, the 30-year-old husband and father is hoping his family’s journey from their native Haiti to Chile then across the Texas border will end with U.S. approval of their request for legal residency here.
Fearing his work as a journalist made him a target for assassins in Haiti, Joseph left for Chile, found work and brought his family over. Soon, he ran into the poverty and discrimination experienced by many of the 182,000 Haitians who have moved to the South American country to work largely menial jobs.
The family fled again, surviving jungles, smugglers and other obstacles on a 4,700-mile trek to the U.S. border. They arrived just before would-be immigrants from Haiti began showing up by the thousands and triggering a widely reported roundup in August by officers on horseback that drew criticism from as far as the White House.
Now, with help from a local doctor, Joseph, his wife Claudia, 25, and their young son, Jim, 4, are living in Tampa while they are planning to apply for Temporary Protected Status through the Department of Homeland Security.
“The worst is over, and we lived through it,” Joseph said, in broken Spanish. “The important thing is that we are all here, together, in America.”
The number of Haitians seeking to enter the United States has risen dramatically this year, many of them from South American nations such as Brazil and Chile. Driving the increase are high unemployment in Brazil due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new immigration policies in Chile that make it harder to get a permanent resident card there, and the U.S. decision to expand Temporary Protected Status for Haitians.
Smugglers and human trafficking gangs have exaggerated the U.S. move in order to drum up business.
An estimated 15,000 Haitians reached the southern U.S. border in September, many of them steered toward crowded camps along the Rio Grande. Three months later, the Biden administration said most Haitians had been deported — many through a provision in immigration law that denies them the chance to seek asylum here.
The crisis at home is just the latest chapter in the chronic misery of life in Haiti, a nation beset by corruption and natural disasters. People risk their lives and safety to flee by air and sea.
Joseph left Haiti in October 2016, calling it a life or death decision because of his reporting on local news and government corruption for radio station La Gonave FM.
“A lot of people didn’t like what I said about the government, and in Haiti everyone knows that you don’t have freedom of speech,” Joseph said. “I told the truth and they threatened me”.
He bought a ticket from Port-au-Prince to Santiago, Chile, with help from Dr. Mark Morris, a 78-year-old Tampa pediatrician who has known Joseph’s family for more than a decade. Morris had been making medical mission trips to Haiti until the start of the pandemic in March 2020, through the aid group Partners with Haiti.
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Joseph, who spoke Haitian Creole, started a new life in Spanish-speaking Chile and brought Claudia from Haiti three months later. She was pregnant with their child. They lived for five years in Buin, a small town south of the capital of Santiago. There, Joseph worked seven days a week, as a machinist on a farm and on weekends as a meatpacker. He made about $500 a month.
“It was very difficult for everyone,” he said. “You don’t speak the language, you don’t have anyone, you are alone against the world.”
Son Jim was bullied and physically abused at the school he attended, Joseph said. They alerted police but there was no investigation. One night, Joseph was beaten by a group of men waiting for him as he left work, he said.
“The color of your body is a problem, and if you don’t speak Spanish well, it is also another problem,” Joseph said.
“Some people believe that we came to make trouble, to take other people’s jobs or to live off the government. But we, Haitians, are good workers.”
Joseph and his wife decided they had to leave again, this time for the United States.
He sold the family’s 2011 Chevrolet for $2,500 and came up with another $1,500 to pay a smuggler for the journey.
The first leg was from Santiago to Iquique, a city on the northern border with Bolivia. They waited until dark to walk across the border with the smuggler, joining a group of a dozen other Haitians. In Bolivia, they paid for a bus to La Paz then crossed into Peru illegally and rode north on another bus to Ecuador.
The next bus took them to Colombia, at $100 per person. It cost $280 per person for the drive to the Darién Gap, a sprawling, mountainous jungle straddling Colombia and Panama. They walked the jungle for seven days, enduring rain, mosquitoes and extortion by gangs of smugglers.
“It is a very difficult journey but we did it,” Claudia Joseph said. “And our son Jim was very brave. That gave us more strength to continue.”
They bought and carried bottles of water, cookies, canned food, even snake oil — “to scare animals.”
At a jungle river crossing, Joseph lost his backpack and his family’s birth certificates. Somehow, he hung onto their passports.
The crossing through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and the Mexican city of Tapachulas went smoothly. From Tapachulas, they moved quickly by train and car and reached the northern Mexico border July 20. Nine days later, on July 29, a month before the horseback roundup, they were seeking refuge in Texas.
“We are blessed, we were very lucky,” said Joseph.
The Temporary Protected Status that Joseph seeks is a federal designation for immigrants seeking to escape the ravages of war or natural disaster in a dozen countries across Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. The status lasts 18 months and is often renewed automatically.
The government extended eligibility to Haitian citizens for 18 months, until February 2023. The measure also benefits those who have lived continuously in the United States since July 29.
John Dubrule, an immigration attorney who is representing the Joseph family for free, said they are trying to acquire a document bearing their official date of U.S. entry.
“We are trying to help them all, but we need that evidence,” Dubrule said. “It is important documentation to present a strong case.”
Fadia Richardson, a member of the Haitian Association Foundation of Tampa Bay, said the Josephs deserve a chance to live in the U.S.
“I have done a lot of volunteer work with the Haitian communities,” Richardson said. “The people I have met are hard-working people who are wanting a better life for them and their families.”
She added, “The situation in Haiti is awful right now — lots of insecurity, kidnapping, civil unrest and poverty.”
Haiti was still recovering from a 2010 earthquake that killed 220,000 people when another quake hit in July, killing 2,000 and injuring 10,000. What’s more, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July threw control of the country into turmoil.
Joseph said he’s eager to be a contributing member of society. He studies English three hours a week on Facebook and is ready to work as soon as his legal status allows it. Claudia is also taking English virtual classes, hoping some day to work in a hotel and save money to open a Haitian restaurant in Tampa.
The family lives in a two-bedroom apartment they share with another Haitian immigrant, a single mother of a 12-year-old child. Morris, the pediatrician, covers half the $900 monthly rent. The Josephs walk Jim the 2 miles to elementary school each day.
“They deserve an opportunity,” Morris said. “They have been a working family in Haiti and Chile. They know what they are looking for — a better life. I would help them again.”