When a person wins the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Prize, an award accompanied by a check for $ 30,000, the ceremony is usually held in the chamber of the United States Senate.
But when Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of the San Diego-based Haitian Bridge Alliance, found out she had won the annual award this year, she knew she wanted to celebrate differently. She brought her ceremony to the border, leading a group including Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights staff and musical artist Wyclef Jean at a Tijuana migrant shelter and then at the Otay Mesa detention center, which holds detained for immigration and customs enforcement.
“We wanted to present this award to people on both sides of the border to let them know it’s for them,” Jozef said. “We hear them. We see them. We will continue to fight for them.
She took the opportunity to press for the end of Title 42, a policy in place since the start of the pandemic and allowing border officials to deport migrants to Mexico or to their country of origin without offering them the possibility. to get tested. asylum eligibility, as normally required by US law and international treaties. Although President Joe Biden has campaigned against some of the Trump administration’s immigration policies that have resulted in asylum seekers waiting in unsafe conditions in cities in northern Mexico, Biden’s team continued and defended its use of Title 42.
She also called for an end to the deportations of Haitians and more generally to deportations.
“We went to the border because we heard that there were Haitians,” she said in a speech outside the detention center, recalling the early days of her organization’s work in Tijuana. “We went for the Haitians, but we stayed for everyone. And we will continue to fight for everyone.
Jozef, a longtime Orange County resident, has traveled to San Diego daily for years so that the Haitian Bridge Alliance can provide on-the-ground support to Haitians and other migrants on both sides of the border. She also helped create a fund to pay off the obligations of black migrants trapped in immigration detention centers. She has become a national voice advocating for more humane border policies.
To celebrate Jozef’s award, Jean performed in the back of a flatbed truck transformed into a stage on the street near the detention center. He was strumming a guitar as he sang, addressing Biden directly and asking him to end Title 42.
“I know my Haitians can hear me behind the fence. I know ICE is listening, ”he sang. “Have a little compassion for my people behind the fence.”
The question is personal to him, he said. He immigrated from Haiti as a child.
“I’m looking at these people across the table who I’m talking to,” he said of his experiences in Tijuana that morning. “It could have been me.”
He was particularly moved by his conversation with a mother who said she traveled through seven countries to bring her child to the United States after living in Brazil. He asked her how she was continuing.
“’Every time I looked my child in the eye, I would rather die than not give him a better life,” he said. “It really touched my heart.”
Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said she has known Jozef for three years since they worked together to support Haitian and Cameroonian migrants in Tijuana.
“What’s amazing about Guerline is that she works on big issues – she works in the crucible of poverty, race and immigration,” Kennedy said. “These are all three very difficult problems in our country, and she works where the three meet.”
She also spent time with Jozef in Del Rio when thousands of Haitians were held under a bridge in Texas and footage of border patrol officers on horseback chasing men bringing food to their families sparked a public outcry.
Kennedy remembered that Jozef had noticed a woman in the crowd holding a baby who was not moving. Jozef walked over and asked the woman about her child.
“She was born a few days ago and hasn’t eaten,” Kennedy recalled, responding. Kennedy thinks the new mother was in shock.
Jozef asked to hold the baby, then asked the mother to trust him enough to take the baby to a doctor. The child was eventually airlifted to a hospital in Houston.
“She saved this child’s life,” Kennedy said.
Jozef is now the baby’s godmother.
“That’s the meaning of his commitment,” Kennedy said. “It’s about the children in front of her, the mom in front of her, the dad in front of her.
Jozef plans to use some of the prize money to send his parents on vacation, she said.
These holidays are long overdue. According to Jozef, his parents gave up a comfortable life in Haiti to immigrate to the United States after a coup. Back in Haiti, they had a big house and his father was mayor. In the United States, her father became a taxi driver and her mother a cleaner. Both worked long hours to take care of the family.
But she doesn’t go on vacation herself, she said. She immediately returns to work.