The U.S. government announced last month that it would resume deportations to Haiti, despite a cholera epidemic and political unrest. To learn more about the deportations, I recently spoke with Cheryl Little, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.
Q: 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 drivers 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.
Q: So far, one planeload of 27 Haitians has been sent back to Haiti. Who was on that plane?
According to the U.S. government, they were folks who had been found guilty of a crime. They had all finished serving their sentences. It may be that some of these Haitians had serious criminal histories, but we also believe that a number of them do 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.
Q: What happened to the people who were returned?
The Haitians who were returned on January 20th 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 re-integration policy so that when Haitians are sent back they're properly cared for. I can tell you, the re-integration policy is practically non-existent. They've reached out to a group, Alternative Chance, a non-profit operating on a shoestring budget, and they can't begin to provide these detainees with the help they need.
Q: 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 in Haiti whom they haven't seen in long time.
Q: 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 being a felon in possession of a firearm 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 told him to plead guilty (and) he wanted to clear up his immigration record.
(The remaining deportees were released from jail in Haiti on January 31).
Q: What do you know about the logistics of how these Haitians were detained by immigration officials?
In many cases, immigration officials went to their homes in the early morning hours and at gun point arrested them, detained them. 100 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.
Q: 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. Many Cubans with criminal histories are not being deported at this time.
Q: How has the Haitian government's responded to the resumption of deportations?
It's my understanding that the Haitian government is not issuing travel documents in these cases. They're very concerned that our government is deporting Haitians back to their country at a time, frankly, when their country is in many ways worse off than it was right after the earthquake, because we've got the cholera outbreak now, we've got the fiasco following the elections, we've got Baby Doc Duvalier there. The United States government on January 20th had originally wanted to deport 59 Haitians. The Haitian government only agreed to take 28, and it's my understanding that only 27 went back.
Q: What could be done to change the U.S. 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.
Q: 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 re-designate Temporary Protected Status and to permit those Haitians to apply, 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 55,000 Haitians in Haiti whose relatives in the U.S. are lawful permanent residents and U.S. citizens. These relatives had applied to get visas for them to come here legally. Those visa petitions have been approved, but the Haitian beneficiaries aren't being allowed to come here because there's a quota system and there are backlogs and so they could wait five or 10 years. Our government recently renewed a program that grants Cubans in the same situation parole so that they can be reunited with their U.S. family until the visa becomes available.
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.
A similar version of this interview originally ran on the website of New America Media.