Inside Little Haiti

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

If you ignored the coiled tubes of concertina wire, Krome's architectural pretensions were eerily collegiate, evoking campus life, a small vocational school with strict regimens, a dress code constrained to orange jumpsuits, and a student body of young black men and women whose monastic silence underscored the gravity of their aspirations. As Rozos had told me when I talked to him at length in December, he had "the whole place painted Florida flamingo colors." Nothing shocked overtly. Women sat outdoors at picnic tables in a recreation pavilion, playing cards, mumbling in a bank of pay phones, staring into space. I was led down a sidewalk to a compound within a compound, swaddled in razor wire. This was the men's dormitory, locked down for the second of four daily head counts. It was little more than a warehouse, Spartan but airy, filled with natural light and brightened by a wide band of plum-colored paint, and divided into wings by an open-topped security station manned by five not-unfriendly guards, perplexed by the media's vendetta against them. About 150 detainees lay flat on metal bunkbeds, wordless and expressionless, stacks of humanity on hold. The silence seemed perverse, and whatever eye contact I managed was searing.

These men were gamblers who had bet the bank and lost. Some had paid parasitical smugglers upward of $1500 for passage aboard a vessel that at least had not sunk, as one had near the Bahamas right before Christmas, its hundreds of passengers drowned. Others had flown into Miami brandishing doctored visas purchased from document vendors on the streets of Port-au-Prince, or had presented an altered U.S. passport, the rightful owner's photograph switched for the refugee's. If they wanted, they could be deported tomorrow, which is what Brazilians and Dominicans were famous for doing, unable to endure more than a night in Krome before asking to be sent home. If, however, a detainee chose to pursue a claim to asylum, the average pace for paperwork and hearing ran eight to nine months, and, as Rozos had told me, it was dull, difficult, and frustrating. "You can't get good time in Krome," Mike Rozos had said, "and you can't get bad time." Not heaven, not hell, but purgatory, and you were simply stuck.

In the cafeteria, I couldn't help but notice the strange art on the walls A jigsaw puzzles of idyllic European scenes, pieced together by detainees and pasted to a backboard. No puzzles of the United States A Mount Rushmore, say, or the Statue of Liberty A as though in a world of distressing ironies, enough was enough; yet in the food service area, half-hidden behind a bread cart, someone had painted a mural of a younger Miami skyline, the haloed horizon of the promised land, only its hues were dark and brooding, incongruently grim and unwelcoming for a sun-splashed city, a vision from a sterile dream, and if you dreamed this dream, you fell out of your life, and into Krome.

Rozos, the supervisor for detention and deportation, was, with some rather cavalier reservations, sympathetic. "If I lived in Haiti," he readily admitted to me, "I'd get my ass out of there," but "I always say that the Haitians don't want Haiti fixed because they'd rather be here. Most of the Haitians who have bucks don't want to immigrate legally. We charge income tax, they don't. Haiti's cure is down in Haiti," as any Haitian will jump to tell you, "but the bottom line is, they don't want to be cured." Worst of all, Rozos thought, the Haitians had this bad attitude, a legacy of the Marine occupation earlier in the century, that Americans had ruined their country, and now were obliged to take care of them. But it was not as though Haitians were without redeeming qualities: they were the last folks Rozos would ever call lazy; they had more guts, he allowed, than people gave them credit for, and they were essentially humble, although "they pull at your pant leg like a kid," and they didn't understand our system for beans A an ignorance that sooner or later resulted in "misunderstandings" and a flood of allegations, 95 percent of which were hype, according to Rozos, "a pack of lies," especially when you considered that most of the guards at Krome were not "natural-born Americans, so they're not going to bother anybody because they want to come to America."

Last summer, after the barracks fire, a Miami Herald editorial had taken Rozos to the woodshed for publicly referring to the Haitian detainees as "scumbuckets," and if anyone in Washington had since counseled Rozos in the art of euphemism, he had forgotten the exercise by the time I spoke with him. For two hours he heaped scorn upon human rights groups, immigration lawyers, the courts, Miami power brokers, and South Florida's media. As for the city itself, it was a pigsty; as far as Rozos was concerned, Miami wasn't even the United States, which began somewhere over around Fort Lauderdale. "Ever since Mariel," he declared, "the place has gone straight down."

Rozos believed, for better or worse, that when you looked at Krome, you were seeing the future of immigration policy in the United States. It wasn't Ellis Island, we could both agree A that monument to our own ancestors, since we were both second-generation Americans. Glancing at the video surveillance monitor on his desk, he reminisced about the integrity and determination of his grandfather, a Greek immigrant; how the old man labored triumphantly, never took a handout; how he framed his certificate of citizenship on his office wall, an icon of democracy.

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