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Deportations to Haiti: Still a Death Sentence

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By Vince Warren, Carrie Bettinger-Lopez and Sunita Patel

This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency formalized its Haitian deportation policy. ICE claims it will consider medical and humanitarian factors when deciding whether to deport someone to Haiti. Yet, the policy will still lead to deportations, as early as next week, of individuals like "Fred," a 20-year-old born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents, whose entire family lives in the U.S. Before being deported in January he had never before set foot in Haiti, but was permanently expelled from the U.S. for attempting to sell $20 of cocaine to an undercover cop. And as the U.S. government knows, deportations to Haiti amount to a death sentence for deportees.

The massive earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010 left nearly 300,000 Haitians dead and over 1.2 million more displaced and homeless. Overnight, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere was catapulted into a crisis of unthinkable proportions. Basic sanitation, adequate food, potable water, and shelter were absent. Recognizing a crisis, the U.S. government halted deportations to Haiti on humanitarian grounds. In the year since, the crisis in Haiti has gone from bad to worse: a cholera epidemic rages throughout the country, the Haitian government is deeply compromised, and sexual assaults and forced evictions are well-documented in the tent camps. The situation is particularly bad in Haitian detention centers--where deportees are locked up and where cholera has already claimed approximately 60 lives.

In December 2010, the U.S. government announced it was resuming deportations of Haitian nationals with criminal convictions and then secretly rounded up a few hundred Haitians and placed them in immigration detention jails. We implored our government to reverse course. We warned that deportees would be detained in filthy jails and exposed to disease and abuse upon arrival in Haiti (standard practice prior to the earthquake).

We turned to the international community. We filed an emergency petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a human rights body in the Organization of American States. In February 2011, the IACHR recognized the potential human rights violations and urged the U.S. government not to deport Haitians, particularly those who are ill or have significant family ties in the U.S. Similarly, the United Nations Independent Expert on Haiti asked all countries to "refrain from expelling Haitians and continue to provide decent temporary arrangements for their protection on humanitarian grounds."

Our calls fell on deaf ears. In January 2011, the U.S. government deported twenty-seven men to Haiti. They were detained for nearly two weeks in cells covered in feces, vomit, trash, and blood-stained walls. They were denied medical care, food and water. The leader of the group - a 34-year-old man named Wildrick Guerrier who came to be known as "Black Jesus" - cleaned up the facility and took care of ill and elderly prisoners. Yet when "Black Jesus" and others fell ill with cholera-like symptoms, the guards denied them medical care, telling them "you were sent here to die." Mr. Guerrier died a short time later. After learning of the tragic death, our government should have stopped all deportations to Haiti.

And two weeks ago, we attended a meeting at the IACHR with representatives from the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security. The U.S. government representatives acknowledged the conditions in Haitian detention to which deportees are exposed are "disgusting and inhumane." They indicated that perhaps our government had deported people in error. We were optimistic the U.S. government would do the right thing. We were wrong.
The primary reason the U.S. government has given for resuming deportations is public safety. Yet, despite the U.S. government's claims that it intended to limit removals to "serious criminals," the first 27 men removed included people with low-level convictions. All of the individuals being detained in Louisiana today have served their criminal sentences or had such minor convictions they were never sentenced to time in jail.

Haiti is in a particularly precarious position now. The cholera epidemic has led to a quarter of a million known cases in Haiti with 4,717 reported deaths as of March 18, 2011. And a new study by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Harvard Medical School, published March 16 in the journal Lancet, predicts 779,000 cases of cholera -- nearly twice the number previously expected -- between March and November of this year alone. On top of that, there is election chaos, the coming rainy season, and a large-scale departure of many international organizations from Haiti in the near future. The Haitian government has made no commitment not to detain deportees upon arrival, nor has it made any commitment to improve the general conditions for deportees.

The right to life should not be selectively applied depending on one's citizenship status or a prior bad act. The U.S. government has a basic obligation not to deport anyone to death. Our country must live up to its human rights commitments and immediately halt any and all deportations to Haiti.

Vince Warren is the Executive Director and Sunita Patel is a Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Caroline Bettinger-Lopez is an Associate Professor of Clinical Legal Education and Director of the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law. Along with other human rights organizations, CCR and the University of Miami Human Rights Clinic are co-counsel on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights petition to prevent removals of Haitians from the United States. To learn more about the IACHR case, view CCR's case page.