Perilous Journey

For more than two decades Miami's Haitian Refugee Center was a beacon of hope and a force for justice. Today its director, Guy Victor, is struggling just to keep it afloat.

For refugees seeking political asylum in the United States, a bureaucratic event called the "individual merits asylum hearing" is a defining moment. At the hearing refugees are invited to appear in small, sparsely furnished courtrooms located in one of downtown Miami's federal buildings and to recount, under oath, tales of past persecution. When they are finished, an immigration judge decides whether they will be permitted to stay in the United States.

Obviously this is not the type of appointment one casually brushes off. Immigration lawyers have fought protracted legal battles to ensure that a refugee will be awarded such a hearing and that it will be properly conducted. In some situations, the difference between asylum and deportation can be the difference between life and death.

For nearly two decades the Haitian Refugee Center, a nonprofit organization located in a storefront on NE 54th Street in Little Haiti, has spoken up, loudly and insistently, as the federal government repeatedly violated the rights of its clients -- undocumented Haitians. Lawyers from the center tirelessly hectored federal judges, immigration authorities, and television audiences, reminding anyone within earshot that Haitians, like everyone else, had the right to apply for political asylum, that they had the right to flee their country, and that they had the right not to be returned to a place where they had been persecuted, imprisoned, beaten, starved, and systematically impoverished. In the process, the center broadened protection for refugees from all countries, and won national attention and acclaim.

There was something quixotic about the battle, which pitted a ramshackle legal center located in the neglected heart of Miami's urban core, against the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Justice Department, the State Department, even the President of the United States.

The center's clients were poor, black, and foreign. Their arrival on South Florida's shores was not welcomed by U.S. officials, who were reluctant to offer them asylum hearings, much less to grant them residency or citizenship. Outraged by the callousness and blatant discrimination, lawyers at the Haitian Refugee Center took the government to court. When they lost, or when rulings in their favor were overturned, they sued again. And again. No legal action was too laborious and no chance of victory too remote if it meant delaying a deportation order and buying their clients more time. A lawyer at the Haitian Refugee Center would never overlook an asylum hearing, no matter how hectic daily affairs might be. Doing so, after all, would be tantamount to drawing up a deportation order. Immigration attorneys say such carelessness would verge on malpractice.

Yet at least twice last month the Haitian Refugee Center and its clients failed to show up for scheduled hearings. In both cases, the refugees were ordered to be deported as a result.

The incidents reveal a profound crisis at the center. This past December the Florida Bar, one of the organization's principal financial backers, discontinued its funding after more than a decade of support. Other major grants are in jeopardy, and several members of the center's board of directors have resigned or are allowing their terms to lapse.

Belet J., a 34-year-old tailor with a decade-long history of political activism in Haiti, was scheduled for an asylum hearing the morning of January 9 before Judge Nancy McCormack. (Government-appointed immigration judges technically hold the rank of administrative hearing officers, but they are referred to as "your honor.") But on the appointed day, Belet J. wasn't there; the courtroom was empty except for the judge, a Creole translator, and Steven Forester, formerly the supervising attorney for the Haitian Refugee Center, who had been laid off at the end of October.

Visibly agitated, Forester implored McCormack to delay the case. The center was having some problems, he explained. The staff hadn't received regular paychecks since April. The water was temporarily shut off during the summer after the bill went unpaid. The copy and fax machines were repossessed at the end of September by the company that leased them to the center, and phone service was interrupted at least three times. "Since November I've had no access to the refugee center or its files, despite my desire for such access," Forester said.

Because poor clients tend to change their addresses frequently, court notices are usually sent to the attorney, who is then responsible for contacting the client. Forester had withdrawn from Belet's case shortly after he was laid off in order to protect himself from any charges of malpractice that might stem from the center's future handling of the case. "My only point is that the individual had no idea that he had a hearing scheduled for today," Forester continued.

McCormack stared down at Forester, her glasses sliding to the tip of her nose. She pointed out that Forester was no longer the attorney of record and had no right to speak for the client. "We can't presume that he was or was not informed," she responded icily. "He's not here and that's it. The rules are very strict." Belet J.'s request for political asylum was denied, she enunciated carefully. If located by the INS, he would be deported.

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