Rodney Montreuil has a lot on his plate.
With glasses and a perpetual smile, he’s a high school math teacher in Phoenix. Students had been let out early during spring break when we meet at his school. Montreuil is already on the phone with a Haitian woman he’s assisting in her transition to the United States.
“I’m going to visit a couple of clients today,” he said. “The first is a couple, they arrived in October.”
Montreuil is also from Haiti, although he has lived in Phoenix for the past two decades. He now assists recently arrived Haitians with everything from money transfers to job hunts. His phone is almost continuously ringing.
Thousands of Haitians have camped beneath a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, requesting refuge in less than six months. It came after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, and the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Mose.
“We are living in hell in Haiti,” Montreuil said.
Despite this, most have been deported to Mexico or Haiti under Title 42. This is the pandemic-era policy that authorizes border guards to send migrants and asylum seekers away due to public health concerns. This month marks the two-year anniversary of the protocol’s implementation. On Saturday, the Biden administration announced the termination of the policy for unaccompanied children at the border, in response to a court decision issued earlier this month. However, it is still in effect for both families and those who are traveling alone.
According to the International Organization for Migration and the advocacy organization Witness at the Border, which records removal flights, more than 20,000 Haitians have been removed — mostly under the procedure — during President Biden’s term.
“They have survival skills, but they have a limit … there’s a limit,” he said. “When they cannot anymore, the only rescue is to get out.”
Montreuil fled in the early 1990s when his mother expressed concern that his position with the government there might lead to his death.
“My mother used to say, ‘man, I would like to die before I got a call from the police that they found a body in the streets,’” he said. “That sounded so powerful, she used to say it all the time.”
He watched from Phoenix a few years ago as Haiti was ravaged by further political instability and another natural calamity, Hurricane Matthew. He recognized that a large number of immigrants would be arriving in the United States shortly, and he wanted to help.
“It’s not just a Haitian problem … or a refugee problem,” he said. “It’s an American problem, it’s an Arizonan problem.”
He is now the director of the Haitian American Center for Social Economic Development, or HACSED for short. Like Montreuil, it’s entirely run by volunteers. And it’s how he finds up assisting folks all around the Valley, like Dieula Sainvil, a young mother residing at a west Phoenix shelter.
Sainvil is 27 years old and wears her hair in a bun with a glittering barrette. Her small daughter, who was born barely a month ago in Phoenix, was napping off in a baby carrier while she prepared dinner on the stove. Montreuil acted as her translator.
After her father was assassinated by gang members in 2019, she informed me she left Haiti.
“I am a daughter, and most of the time, sons have a tendency to seek revenge for their relatives, but I didn’t see it that way,” she said in Creole. “I immediately envisioned getting out of the country.”
Sainvil spent a week in Brazil and three months in Chile, according to her. She then proceeded to the US-Mexico border. In December, she and her spouse moved there.
He has relatives in Indianapolis, and they had planned to visit. However, Sainvil claims that they were separated while in immigration jail. Her spouse hasn’t left.
They are currently pursuing separate asylum claims, and she is unsure if he will be allowed to remain in the United States or will be deported to Haiti.
“Life is pretty tough for my family in Haiti,” she said. “Most of them take a chance and venture into the Dominican Republic to look for jobs, and sometimes they face serious difficulties or maybe death.”
Montrieul thinks that by talking about them on the radio, he may be able to answer some of the questions that people have.
Every Sunday, he tapes Tikoze, or “Let’s Have a Chat” in English, his weekly Creole-language program.
He discusses everything from immigration to how to pay taxes in the United States.
“This radio show informs, educates and entertains the Haitian community, wherever you are,” he said.
That’s all over the world, said to Josue Philistine, another Haitian who manages the station that plays Tikoza. From his living room, they record and broadcast live on Facebook.
“Brazil, Chile, Haiti … basically anywhere where there’s internet, people can listen,” he said.
In 2016, Philistine was the first person Montrieul supported to be released from immigration jail. He spent some time with Montrieul and won his asylum application a few years ago. He’s currently preparing to purchase a home in San Tan Valley.
“Josue symbolizes what I hope my job significance will be,” he said. “I mean Josue is my hero, seriously.”
Montrieul admits that he won’t be able to fix all of Haiti’s problems. But, whether in person in Phoenix or over the air, he hopes to be of assistance to others.