Inside Little Haiti

From an island in the sea to an island in the heart of Miami

Two days later the Coast Guard intercepted the boat in the Windward Passage. Taken aboard the ship, the passengers were forced to leave their meager luggage behind, and their vessel was sunk. They were taken to Guantanamo, which by spring was inundated by 12,000 refugees. Erithe and her husband were interviewed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, determined to have a valid claim to political asylum, and in April, after having their blood tested for the AIDS virus, were paroled into the United States. They arrived at Homestead AFB with only the clothes on their backs.

A month later they were given a few hundred dollars, a book of food stamps, employment authorization cards, and released to fend for themselves. At Guantanamo Erithe had met another young mother from Pestel, and the Montvilles tagged along with her to her uncle's house in Florida City, renting the back two rooms in the bungalow next door. By now it was the middle of the summer. Erithe was three months pregnant. There was no case worker, no welfare checks, no government help, she told me. (According to the 1990 census, 34 percent of the Haitians in South Florida live below poverty level, yet perhaps because the Haitian culture is family oriented, with a tenacious work ethic that values self-sufficiency, only a small fraction of those eligible for welfare even bother to apply.) Unable to find steady employment, Erithe and her husband hired out as day laborers in the nearby groves, picking lemons and limes.

Then the hurricane came, its eye passing overhead. Erithe told me she screamed and screamed as pieces of her house blew away.

In the dirt yard between that house and the house of her friend, we sat on kitchen chairs in the middle of a wasted landscape, talking through a translator about her new life in America. The roofs of both houses were patched together with plywood scraps and plastic sheeting, their edges tacked down to truss-ends with flattened soda cans. Broken windows were replaced with cardboard; piles of shingles were mounded around storm-battered cars. Chickens ranged freely; pariah dogs foraged through frozen swirls of trash the hurricane had deposited in the fields. Rain still poured through countless leaks into Erithe's house, and there was no electricity, which meant she cooked her family's meals over a charcoal pot, as she had in Haiti. As I sat in the fierce sun, listening to her singsong Creole, it was difficult to gauge how her life had improved A but of course it had: Even if the government changed for the better in Haiti, she wanted to remain here, where at least life's cruelty was not institutionalized.

"I'm loaded with problems," said Erithe. She was prettily dressed in secondhand clothes, had the classically proportioned face of a fashion model, and was so terribly shy I felt I had captured her. "How will these problems get solved? I don't know. God will help me.

At least in the United States I can find some help."
She wanted to learn to read and write, then be trained for a trade, she wasn't sure what, never having had the luxury to think realistically about such prospects. None of this would happen any time soon, since before the month was out she'd be scrambling to find a ride to Jackson Memorial Hospital to give birth to her third child. As we waited for her husband to return from the tree nursery where he had found permanent employment, a jitney pulled up and out came Erithe's four-year-old, home from day care, and before long both of Erithe's daughters were tugging at their mother's arm, cranky and whining. Erithe gave a stoic sigh.

"We have had nothing to eat today," she said, "and there's no more juice for the children."

Any understanding of the Haitian experience in the United States begins at the Krome North Service Processing Center, on the edge of the Everglades just south of Tamiami Trail, where the INS detains illegal aliens, the overwhelming majority of them Haitian refugees seeking political asylum, for months and sometimes years, until these refugees are inevitably deported. More than one observer has likened Krome to a concentration camp, and although that label is hyperbolic and unfair, it casts a gloomy shadow of truth, because Krome exists on the threshold of an expanding American intolerance toward the world's downtrodden and their dream of sanctuary within our border.

This winter I visited Krome three times. No journalist had been granted access to the facility's interiors since last summer, after a devastating barracks fire, then the hurricane, disrupted an operation already trademarked by controversy. On my third try, however, after a two-week hunger strike by the Haitian detainees fizzled out in early January, Mike Rozos, Krome's second-in-command, judged his house sufficiently in order to agree to my request for a walk-through.

In 1980 Krome A an old Department of Defense missile base built in the Sixties A was appropriated by the INS and used as a human stock pen during the Mariel boatlift. By 1981 the Marielitos were gone but the Haitians A 200 of them, shoulder to shoulder A were not. Riots broke out, suicides were attempted. The federal courts capped Krome's population at a more humane level, though the Reagan administration refused to provide secure legal status, as it had the Cubans, to the detainees it was required to release, and Haitians have been trapped inside Krome's pointedly glacial loop ever since.

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