Still without work visa, Haitian migrant tries to make best of life in sister city

Sitting at a taco shop booth a few blocks from the border fence in Nogales, Sonora last Tuesday, Ruben Jean Baptiste talked about life in the border town where he arrived a year ago on his way to the United States – a plan that changed when he realized he would likely be deported if he presented himself to U.S. authorities.

Instead, he has spent the last year in Nogales, Sonora, where he’s struggled to learn the language, adjust to the culture and make ends meet, especially because he can’t legally work in Mexico after being denied a humanitarian visa, he said. Still, he likes the city and the people he’s met there, and with few other options, he said, he plans to stay. At least for a while.

Baptiste, 29, is one of only a handful of the nearly 200 Haitian migrants who arrived in Nogales, Sonora last October who remain. After many tried unsuccessfully to reach the United States, others decided to stay put and make a go of it south of the border. However, while Haitians in other parts of Mexico have been able to secure visas, immigration authorities in Sonora have rejected repeated requests, further discouraging the migrants and diminishing their numbers.

“It’s something I still don’t understand. Nogales and Sonora is part of Mexico, but it’s completely different from the rest of the country. In Tapachula, Mexicali, Tijuana, people can work,” Baptiste said. “But here, you can’t work without permission, and they have denied all of us. You can work anywhere in Mexico, but not in Nogales.”

Despite the lack of a visa, Nogales has started to feel like home to Baptiste. And while in December he expects to receive a work permit in Tijuana, where he applied in June, he said he doesn’t think he’ll move.

“For me, it’s not the country, it’s not the place. The most important thing is to be somewhere that you feel at ease, where there’s security, where there’s work,” he said.

After fleeing violence in Haiti in 2009, Baptiste said, he worked and studied in Brazil for seven years before deciding to try to join his father and brother in Florida. Now he’s given up on moving to the United States because he doesn’t want to be locked in detention or sent back to Haiti.

In Nogales, Sonora, he said, he feels safe and has been embraced by the community, which provided food, shelter and hospitality to all of the Haitians who arrived here last year. Building those kinds of connections again in Tijuana would be difficult. Despite the lack of legal permission, he added, he has been able to scrape together enough cash to rent a small apartment by doing odd jobs at local businesses.

A pianist and songwriter, Baptiste has also connected with other musicians. He recently recorded a song with singer La Muna, who formerly lived and worked with the migrant aid organization Kino Border Initiative and is now traveling around Mexico with her band.

Their song, “America,” is about the connections shared by all people living in the American continent, despite differences in language or nationality.


Ruben Jean Baptiste sits in a Nogales, Sonora cafe on Tuesday, where he sometimes cleans at night to earn some money.

“I have problems, problems and questions,” Baptiste and La Muna sing. “Why is there so much suffering if we have rights? Why is there so much injustice if we are all America?”

“When I’m singing, you can tell I’m not Mexican yet,” Baptiste joked, adding that he uses music to share how he sees the world and how he feels. “I hope this song is an opening, the door opening just a little. A path I can follow to something good in my life.”

‘Wait and see’

Like Baptiste, thousands of Haitian migrants arrived in Mexican border towns last year on their way to the United States, where they believed they could receive humanitarian parole which would prevent them from being deported back to Haiti. Many had traveled for months from Brazil and other South American countries where they fled after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010.

However, with the large influx of Haitians arriving at the border, U.S. immigration authorities revoked the special status Haitians had previously enjoyed, ultimately deporting many who crossed the border back to their home country. So instead of risking deportation, some Haitians decided to try their luck in Mexico.

In areas such as Baja California, where the largest influx of Haitians arrived last year, some migrants have received humanitarian visas allowing them to live and work legally in Mexico. However, Haitians in Nogales have had their applications denied.

Nogales, Sonora Mayor Cuauhtemoc “Temo” Galindo said in an email message that the visa denials are due in part to questions about the legality of the Haitians’ entry into Mexico.

Sonoran authorities, he said, were suspicious of the organized way in which the groups showed up at the ports of entry, and discovered that some of the migrants had entered the county with false documents or information.

However, immigration advocates, as well as local business leaders in the area who need workers, pushed for the visas earlier this year, saying there is no reason Haitians in Nogales, Sonora should be treated differently than those in other parts of the country. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful.

“There is no convincing explanation that we have heard from the Mexican government as to why applications were granted in Baja California but denied in Sonora, since theoretically the criteria should be the same,” said Joanna Williams, a spokeswoman for the Kino Border Initiative.

Unable to receive the visas in Nogales, Sonora, most of the Haitians have since moved to Tijuana, where they received visas or are still in the waiting process, said Marla Conrad, an advocacy coordinator with KBI. Baptiste is one of approximately five Haitians who have decided to stick it out in Nogales.

“No one knows what will happen,” Baptiste said. “I could say, ‘I will stay here in Nogales,’ and then tomorrow I’ll change my mind, or tomorrow another opportunity will present itself. You just have to wait and see.”