Desperate to Escape Haiti

Outside of the U.S. embassy, thousands of Americans and Haitians jostle daily for a ticket off the island. Joshua Robinson reports from Port-au-Prince.

02.05.10 9:43 PM ET

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—Post-quake Haiti has lines for everything. More often than not, they turn into mad scrums and minor riots, especially when food or water is involved. But one of the more peaceful queues here forms each night under the watchful eyes of U.S. Marines, outside the American Embassy.

The reward for patience is much greater than a day’s worth of rations. At the front of the line, endless hours of waiting away, lies the chance for a ticket to the United States. When people first join the queue, usually with a suitcase and a few relatives in tow, every one of them thinks that he or she has a shot at making it out. In truth, not everyone is equal.

“Rumors are rife through Haiti that you can come to the embassy with a U.S. citizen and 10 people will get out.”

Although many in line grasp folders full of documentation, from birth certificates to photocopies of their relatives’ American driver’s licenses, the embassy staff will separate the group into two simple classes: those who have U.S. passports and those who don’t.

Approximately 3,000 people flock to the embassy every day. But only about half of them carry American passports, according to a U.S. Embassy spokesman. The first screening is performed by the Marines on patrol—they allow 800 to 1,000 candidates into the embassy—and more than 12,000 people have been evacuated through the embassy since January 12.

Haitian-passport holders are turned away in droves, often to return to tent cities overflowing with disease and desperation.

Early last Saturday morning, Eugene Guincely held his 16-month-old nephew, Dave-Ramy Joseph, in the shade of a tree, hoping for his case to be considered. They had arrived, along with Dave-Ramy’s mother, at 4 p.m. the previous day, and had slept on the ground while nursing the child’s fever. They hoped that because Dave-Ramy was born in New York—a U.S. citizen with an American passport—they would be able to get him to the States and to proper medical care, despite not having American passports themselves.

“I’ve already tried several times, so I don’t know,” Guincely, 29, said. “But we’re trying.”

This time, the family was allowed inside for further review. If they were denied again, they would be back on the streets of Port-au-Prince, where their house lies in rubble.

The embassy’s official position has been to handle requests only from U.S. citizens, but exceptions have occurred in cases involving children with American passports, like Dave-Ramy. They are allowed to travel with a single non-American parent or guardian.

“We are very conscious of the need to get our visa operations up and running, but right now we’re overwhelmed with U.S. citizens,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Jerome Oetgen. He estimated that before the earthquake, some 40,000 to 45,000 American citizens were living in Haiti.

The line has become such a fixture outside the embassy, on a strip the locals have not-so-affectionately nicknamed Guantánamo Street, that an improvised market has cropped up across the road. Salesmen hawk everything from water to fried plantains to sunglasses for the people who spend hours in the sweltering heat.

For those who make it through, get past the Marines, wait in another line, fill out the stack of forms, get all the necessary stamps, and emerge on the other side, an open door awaits at the airport. They sign a promissory note to pay back the cost of the flight eventually—at a comparable rate to those of most international carriers—and are off the island within a few hours.

But misinformation remains a critical problem, even as the embassy goes to great lengths to broadcast exactly who is eligible for evacuation and who is not. Despite a radio campaign and vans fitted with loudspeakers circulating the city, the message is not always heard. Or at least, not always understood.

“Rumors are rife through Haiti that you can come to the embassy with a U.S. citizen and 10 people will get out,” Oetgen said.

Mackenzie Jordan, 24, flew down from Trenton, New Jersey, last Friday to collect his 54-year-old mother and two younger sisters without really knowing what would happen. He was the only member of his family carrying a U.S. passport.

“I’m not quite sure,” Jordan explained. “But I heard people talking [who] thought we might have a chance. Right now, they have nowhere to go or sleep.”

Many Haitians, like Darlande Louis, a 21-year-old medical student here, have fixated desperately on the possibility of help from the embassy—even as the evidence continues to indicate that no help is forthcoming.

Just as she had done every morning for five days, Louis turned up in the line around dawn last Saturday, hoping to get to New York or Miami. And just as they had done every morning for five days, the Marines glanced at her Haitian passport and pointed her back toward the street.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t go,” Louis said in halting French. “We sleep in the streets and my family is hurt.”

Suitcase in hand, she walked off, like so many others who tried their luck and failed that morning. There was no Plan B.

The next day, she would be back to try again.

Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. He graduated from Columbia in 2008 and has covered everything from the London Stock Exchange to the World Series.