PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — With his gold teeth, shiny earrings and a life spent mostly in Florida, Serge Michel Dorval is afraid he looks like a rich American to some of the desperate Haitians who live near him in a shantytown alongside a trash-clogged drainage ditch.
It's a fear that keeps him up at night.
But the 25-year-old is not an American, at least not to the U.S. government, which deported him and 26 others back to the country of their birth in January in the first wave of forced removals since an earthquake last year destroyed much of the Haitian capital. Twenty-six of the deportees were convicted of crimes and one was judged a national security threat.
Dorval speaks passable Creole, but he left Haiti as an infant and still is learning how to make his way in a devastated country where the vast majority of people have no job nor prospects of finding one. Living in a tent, he misses hot showers and air conditioning. He misses his young son back in Fort Myers, Florida. He worries that his status as a deported criminal, imprisoned two years for cocaine possession, will make him a target of the police. And he wonders how he will survive.
"I wouldn't wish Haiti on my worst enemy," Dorval said outside the tent he shares with two others in a Port-au-Prince camp populated by thousands left homeless by last year's cataclysmic earthquake. "I'm used to being treated like a human being, but a human life has absolutely zero value in Haiti."
Dorval's misery will soon have company. The U.S. government, which halted deportations to Haiti for a year following the earthquake, plans to deport another 700 people convicted of crimes back to the country this year, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She declined to say when they would be deported, citing security rules.
Hundreds of thousands of people from Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, and other nations have been deported to homelands they barely knew since 1996, when Congress mandated that every non-citizen sentenced to a year or more in prison be booted from the country upon release.
Immigration advocates have pleaded for a halt to the Haiti deportations, citing "inhumane conditions" in the country, where a cholera epidemic has killed more than 4,000 people since October.
Immigration officials say they have no choice under the law: They must release criminal aliens to their countries of origin unless that would be unreasonable. But since they believe Haiti has improved, deportations are now possible.
Even so, conditions are grim for the new arrivals.
One recent deportee has already died, possibly from cholera. All 27 so far have been detained on arrival by Haitian police. Most were held in dungeon-like cells for about 10 days.
"It was a nightmare, with just a bucket ... and no beds, just a dirty floor," said 24-year-old deportee Jean Daniel Maurice, who lived in Spring Valley, New York, and was convicted at 18 for second-degree burglary. "And if you don't have no family bringing food you're not going to eat."
Thirty-four-year-old deportee Wildrick Guerrier, became severely ill while detained at a Port-au-Prince police station with more than a dozen other deportees and various criminal suspects. Dorval, who was detained with him, said Guerrier displayed cholera-like symptoms of diarrhea, weakness and vomiting after tending to other sick and wounded detainees, including a brutally beaten suspect who had defecated on himself.
The detainees begged the police to seek medical care for the visibly ill Guerrier, who was nicknamed "Black Jesus" for his efforts to assist other struggling inmates, according to Dorval. No medical help came. Several deportees interviewed by The Associated Press said police told them: "This is what you came here for: to suffer."
Guerrier, who had participated in a hunger strike while detained in the U.S. to protest his imminent deportation to Haiti, was finally released to an aunt. But he died two days later, according to legal and immigrant rights groups.
"He was goodhearted and the cops let him die," Dorval said. Guerrier, who had earlier served probation for battery on a law enforcement officer, was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm while working as an armed security guard.
No official cause of death was ever announced and Haiti Police Chief Mario Andersol declined to respond to several phone calls seeking comment.
Michelle Karshan, director of Alternative Chance, which has been working with criminal deportees in Haiti for more than a decade, insisted that President Barack Obama's administration is knowingly sending Haitians to their deaths.
"The U.S. State Department's most recent human rights report acknowledged the extent of the horrific and unlawful conditions in Haiti's detention facilities and their most recent travel advisories were clear on the risks of contracting cholera," Karshan said.
Some U.S. backers of tougher immigration enforcement have little sympathy for the ex-cons.
"Advocates for the immigrants, even criminal aliens, never seem to think that conditions are right for their return," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "There is no reason why the United States should be forced to release deportable criminals onto the streets."
Haiti's government doesn't track how many crimes are committed by deportees or how many relapse into crime and there is no hard evidence about whether they significantly affect crime in the country, which has an overwhelmed and ineffective police force.
The first 27 deportees arrived in Haiti before dawn on Jan. 20. All had been convicted of a crime in the U.S. except for Lyglenson Lemorin, who was acquitted in a 2007 terror plot to destroy the Sears Tower in Chicago. While he was a lawful U.S. resident, federal officials said he remained a national security threat. He lost an appeal in January to reverse his deportation.
"It really feels bad knowing that I have no type of justice. It's stressful being here and leaving my sick wife and three kids," Lemorin said during a phone interview from his aunt's home outside Port-au-Prince.
Most of the deportees' future plans are murky. But Maurice insists his terrifying new neighborhood in Haiti's capital will keep him from a life of crime.
"They took us and put us in the middle of a war zone. It's like the country is upside down," said the bespectacled Maurice, who is staying with relatives in a rough ghetto with trigger-happy gangsters. "Every night, every day there's shooting."
He said when shooting starts nearby, he runs in a panic like nearly everyone else, but has no idea where he's going.
Maurice says he is determined to make it without turning to crime. "I know it's gonna be hell to get on my feet in Haiti," he said, "but I will get on my feet."
Others have lost hope.
"I see death for me. I don't even think I'm going to make it a year here," said Pierre Beauduy, a 28-year-old deportee living in a hilly encampment of tents, tarps and bed sheets. The former Brockton, Massachusetts, resident has no relatives in Haiti and mostly stays inside his darkened tent, staring blankly at the flapping walls as they bake in the sun or soak in the rain.