EDITOR’S NOTE: The U.S. government has resumed deportations to Haiti, despite a cholera epidemic and political unrest. To learn more about what is happening to the deportees, NAM contributor Dr. Erin Marcus spoke with Cheryl Little, co-founder and executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.
Why did the U.S. government resume deportations to Haiti?
They tell us is it’s all about public safety, keeping the American public safe.
What they told us at the time [that they announced the new policy] was they were going to be deporting the worst of the worst criminal offenders—axe murderers, rapists, that kind of thing. We subsequently learned that anybody who is labeled a criminal— and in Florida, for example, if you’re driving with an expired driver’s license for four months, you’ve committed a crime—that even individuals like that could be subject to removal under this new policy. So obviously, we were very concerned.
So far, one planeload of 27 Haitians has been sent back to Haiti, on Jan. 20. Who was on that plane?
According to the U.S. government, they were folks who had been found guilty. They had all finished serving their sentences. It may be that some of these Haitians had serious criminal histories, but we also know that a number of them did not. In the vast majority of cases, they had already been released by immigration and customs officials and were abiding by all the requirements of their release. They didn’t get into trouble again. They were doing everything that our government was expecting them to do, and then the next thing they knew, this new policy went into effect and they were rounded up, sent to different jails across the country, and the first planeload of Haitians left Louisiana and arrived in Haiti on January 20th.
Many Haitians and other detainees have told us they pled guilty because they were advised to do so by their attorneys. They were told the sentence would be light and they’d get out of jail sooner. They didn’t understand the serious repercussions of a guilty plea with respect to their immigration status.
We know that first flight that went back included folks like Roland Joseph, whose entire sentence was six months. Nonviolent offense. Regardless of the criminal history, if someone has served their time, served their sentence, they shouldn’t be sent back to a country where they could well be facing a death sentence.
What happened to the people who were returned?
The Haitians who were returned were placed in four different jails outside of Port-Au-Prince. Our government has repeatedly told us that they’ve been working on a viable reintegration policy so that when Haitians are sent back they’re properly cared for. I can tell you, the reintegration policy is practically nonexistent. They’ve reached out to a group, Alternative Chance, a nonprofit operating on a shoestring budget, and they can’t begin to provide these detainees with the help they need.
What have you heard about conditions in the jails?
We know that conditions are horrific, and one of those 27 Haitians who were sent back unfortunately died. Imagine the worst-case scenario, and that’s it. Recently there was a cholera outbreak in the jails. Not surprising, given the crowded and unsanitary conditions.
If you don’t have family or friends to bring you clean water and food, you don’t eat, and you don’t drink clean water. You don’t get anything unless you have family there to care for you. In the best case scenarios, these (deportees) have distant family members or family members they haven’t seen in a long time.
What do you know about Wildrick Guerrier, the deportee who died?
It’s our understanding that he was sent back at the last minute. Shortly after he arrived in Haiti and was jailed, his condition quickly deteriorated and he wasn’t getting proper treatment. He [had been a lawful U.S. resident since 1993, when he arrived as a teenager, and ] had no family in Haiti, so an aunt who lives here in South Florida flew to Haiti, realized he was deathly ill, and insisted they release him. They released him on Jan. 27th and he died shortly thereafter. We know he had cholera-like symptoms—uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting—but we don’t know whether he died of cholera.
Guerrier had served less than two years in a U.S. jail for a conviction on a charge of possessing a firearm by a convicted felon while he was working as an security guard. Earlier, he was accused of committing battery on a police officer during a traffic stop, but he only got probation. There was a probation violation and that’s when he got one year, six months, suspended. When we interviewed him over the phone, he said his lawyer made him plead guilty (and) he wanted to clear up his immigration record.
[The remaining deportees were released from jail in Haiti on Jan. 31].
What do you know about the logistics of how these Haitian were detained by immigration officials?
Immigration officials went to their homes in the early morning hours and at gun point arrested them, detained them. One hundred of these Haitians were at the Krome Detention Center (in southern Miami-Dade County) early on and we had a number of attorneys wanting to meet with them, but rather than permitting us to do that, the Haitians were transferred to three jails in Louisiana, where it’s virtually impossible for them to get legal assistance.
We have asked the government to bring the Haitians back to Miami or other places where there are viable pro-bono programs so they can get proper representation. We believe some of these Haitians are eligible for relief from removal, but it’s extremely difficult for us to help them given that they’re in Louisiana and we’re not.
Deportations have been suspended in the cases of immigrants from other countries after natural disasters and political upheavals. Do you think Haitians have been singled out for particularly harsh treatment?
Here at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, we represent folks from all over the world. I know of no other group that’s been discriminated against to the extent that the Haitians have. They just want to be treated like human beings. Federal courts in the past have said that Haitians have been singled out for discriminatory treatment. Other immigrants whose countries are in dire conditions such as Haiti do not have to go through this.
What could be done to change the deportation policy?
Right now this administration can say, well, we’re not going to deport these Haitians at this time because it’s the wrong thing to do and there’s nothing right about this. That can be done in a heartbeat. It’s just unconscionable that our government is sending anybody back to Haiti at this time. We have repeatedly said this could amount to a death sentence, and sadly we were right.
What is the status of other Haitian immigrants?
A number of Haitians arrived post-earthquake because their homes had been destroyed. Their kids were living in tents in the street, and we are asking this administration to permit those Haitians to apply for Temporary Protected Status, so that if Haitians arrived here in the aftermath of the earthquake in order to survive, they have an opportunity to remain here temporarily. A lot of these Haitians had jobs in Haiti, their kids were in school, that’s the country they love and the country they want to return to. But they need a temporary reprieve. We have applied for deferred action for a number of these Haitian families and in most cases we’ve gotten no decision, so we fear that those cases are going to be denied.
We’re also very concerned about the Haitians in Haiti whose relatives in the U.S. are lawful permanent residents and U.S. citizens, who had applied to get visas and come here legally. Those visa petitions have been approved, but those Haitians aren’t being allowed to come here because there’s a quota system and there are backlogs and so they could wait five or ten years. I talk to Haitians here and they say the visa’s been approved, but my loved one is living in a tent. Why can’t I bring them here? Haitians here who have family members in that situation are traumatized because they feel helpless.
Dr. Erin Marcus is associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.