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.

The decades of abuse, humiliation, and indignity that fuel such statements are documented in the reams of legal pleadings filed over the years by lawyers working for the center, as well as in academic studies and opinions penned by federal judges, urging better and more just treatment of Haitian refugees.

But the wretchedness of the Haitian experience in the United States can have unintended consequences. To the same degree that refugees have been victimized, their defenders and spokesmen have gained moral legitimacy, power, and clout. Within the community, the standing of the Haitian Refugee Center is virtually unassailable, which has enabled a succession of executive directors to avoid both external scrutiny and internal accountability, often to the detriment of the people they seek to help.

The Haitian Refugee Center was formed in 1973 under the auspices of the National Council of Churches to protect the rights and promote the welfare of refugees fleeing the brutally repressive regime of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Led by Ira Kurzban, a Miami immigration attorney who has worked closely with the center since its founding and is currently an advisor to the Haitian government, a group of lawyers set about challenging the government's treatment of Haitian refugees. Among their first successes was securing a guarantee that nearly all refugees would be given the opportunity to ask for political asylum. Soon after that, however, the lawyers uncovered a sweeping government scheme to systematically identify and deport Haitians. Well documented by government memos, it was called the "Haitian Program."

It started with what lawyers referred to as a "bait and switch" operation. Work authorizations were offered to the Haitians during the Seventies, but in 1978 they were suddenly withdrawn and the applicants were placed in deportation proceedings. "The only reason that Haitians were given work permits was so that the government could find out who were illegal aliens and deport them," says Irwin Stotzky, a law professor at the University of Miami who participated in many of the lawsuits filed by the Haitian Refugee Center.

Asylum hearings were accelerated. While the average workload of an immigration judge had been one to ten hearings a day before the program began, afterward it increased to as many as 80 hearings a day, Kurzban remembers. Almost without exception the cases ended badly for the Haitians.

At least 4000 asylum seekers were slated for deportation by 1979 when the Haitian Refugee Center filed suit in federal court challenging the program. During the trial, the center's attorneys, including Kurzban and Steven Forester, sought to establish not only that the procedural flaws in the Haitian Program had denied refugees due process, but that Haitian asylum claims were justified by the savagery of Duvalier's rule. "We brought in all the evidence about the political conditions that they had ignored when processing the claims," Kurzban recalls.

The trial attracted journalists from around the nation who produced stories about the notoriously inhumane Port-au-Prince prison called Fort Dimanche, as well as rigged elections, torture, beatings, and disappearances. In the end, Judge James Lawrence King condemned the Haitian Program and ordered that the 4000 claims be reheard. In a lengthy and scathing opinion, King wrote, "Over the past seventeen years, Haitian claims for asylum and refuge have been systematically denied, while all others have been granted. The recent Haitian Program is but the largest-scale, most dramatic example of that pattern."

According to Kurzban, the successful lawsuit had an additional effect. In the spring of 1980, President Jimmy Carter legalized the status of the 125,000 Cuban refugees who had arrived during the Mariel boatlift. Also affected by the beneficial change in legal status were 15,000 Haitian refugees who had arrived prior to October 10, 1980. Kurzban says the timing was no coincidence: "They knew about the lawsuit in Miami, they knew they were going to lose, and they knew they were going to be embarrassed. In addition, pressure was being exerted in Washington that it would appear racist and discriminatory not to include Haitians in the new status. The decision was made at the highest levels in the White House to include the Haitians."

The center's attorneys didn't have much time to celebrate their victory. By the spring of 1981, the new Reagan administration had instituted an ominous policy change. Asylum seekers were to be detained indefinitely pending the resolution of their claims. Not since Ellis Island shut down in 1954 had the government operated large-scale detention centers. In the past, only those aliens believed to pose a threat to national security or thought to be unlikely to return for their hearings had been routinely detained.

The Krome Service Processing Center, located off Krome Avenue where development sprawl meets swampland, was quickly overwhelmed with detainees. The government's solution: mass hearings and transfers to other parts of the country. Steven Forester recalls running into Ira Kurzban soon after the new policy went into effect. "He said, 'Steve, you'd better go to immigration. They're having hearings for 60 people at a time. Something crazy is going on.'"

Forester raced to the old federal building in downtown Miami only to be physically thrown out of court. Undaunted, he returned with a Creole interpreter and took to standing in public hallways, loudly announcing that the refugees had the right to an attorney and to appeal unfavorable decisions. "It was a farce," he remembers. "They literally moved refugees up back stairways instead of using the elevators just to avoid me."

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