After perilous journey to Tijuana, Haitian family awaits end to Title 42

TIJUANA, Mexico (KABC) -- For refugees like Francel Celestin, the removal of Title 42 cannot come quickly enough. The husband and father of three said he first left Haiti in 2016.

Celestin said his family's best option for safety at the time was Chile. After a years-long stay, challenged by the inability to work and rampant racism, they decided to leave in 2021, he said.

He recounts a long and dangerous journey -- much of it by foot -- spanning nearly 10 countries: Chile to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Between Colombia and Panama, the family walked through a dangerous jungle region known as the Darien Gap for five days. Celestin carried his boy on his shoulders, seeing dead bodies along the way.

"It's very painful," he said.

Celestin, his wife, their children - ages 18, 13 and 6 - arrived in Tijuana on Christmas Day.

Title 42 is what has kept them from seeking asylum in the U.S.

Under the policy, immigration officials can largely turn away or deport people seeking asylum, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Celestin's sister was one of many Haitians detained in Texas and deported under that policy in September, he said. She had cancer and high blood pressure. She died three days after being deported. The cause of her death is unknown.

As U.S. immigration officials exempt many Ukrainian refugees from Title 42, Celestin said many Haitians are fleeing war, too -- a war of organized crime, kidnappings and corruption.

"We would never begrudge the treatment of one group in order to make a political point," said Nicole Elizabeth Ramos, director of Al Otro Lado's Border Rights Project, a binational organization that has supported asylum seekers from all over the world. That includes recently arrived Eastern European refugees.

RELATED: Asylum limits at Mexico border expected to end May

"The point should be if you can do it for this one group, congratulations, we are very happy. But you should be able to do it across the board," said Ramos.

Eyewitness News followed an Al Otro Lado team as one family fleeing drug cartel violence in Michoacan, Mexico tried to speak with a Customs and Border Protection officer to present their asylum claims.

They were a few steps away from Ukrainian refugees waiting to cross the border to have their cases processed.

"Right now, because of Title 42, we can't," the officer told them in Spanish.

The group is documenting how U.S. immigration policy is being applied and gathering evidence for advocacy and litigation.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently said he issued guidance to all CBP officers on the border reminding them of exceptions to Title 42, and how it relates to Ukrainian nationals and "everyone else" attempting to make credible fear claims at the southern border.

Celestin hopes Al Otro Lado can help him and his family once Title 42 is lifted in late May.

He hopes his children can have a dignified and safe life in the U.S., he said. Meantime, Ramos described a lack of information on how immigration officials will process the backlog of cases.
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