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.

Forester, Vera Weisz (another attorney employed by the center), and Bruce Winick, a law professor at the University of Miami, petitioned for an emergency order halting imminent deportations. "The order was served at the airport, with some 88 Haitians aboard a plane with the engines running. The government was deporting them that very evening," Winick recounts.

Although deportation was averted, the mass hearings continued. What's more, in July new courtrooms opened up at Krome. Forester found himself scrambling between simultaneously scheduled hearings. He would typically awake at 6:30 a.m. and hurriedly prepare motions, then he would rush to the Krome courtrooms and dart from one case to another. "It was really crazy," he recalls. "It was a marathon of physical stamina. That's why I was out there at Krome -- because I was this young, thin guy who could run."

When the prospect of indefinite detention failed to deter the Haitian boat people, the U.S. government tried a different tack. In September 1981, the Reagan administration signed an interdiction agreement with Duvalier that authorized the U.S. Coast Guard to stop and search any private Haitian vessels encountered on the high seas. All undocumented individuals were to be returned to Haiti. Not only was the agreement unique in U.S. diplomatic history, but its harshness was not prompted by any discernible migration crisis. At the time, Haitians were estimated to comprise less than two percent of all undocumented aliens living in the United States.

Haitians who managed to reach U.S. shores did not fare much better. Those lucky enough to be detained in Miami made their futile asylum claims in the chaotic atmosphere of Krome's courtrooms. Hundreds of others were transferred to detention facilities in Kentucky, New York, Texas, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, and Louisiana. None of those facilities was located near a big city, and it was almost impossible to find pro bono legal counsel in such remote locations, much less Creole interpreters who could explain to the refugees their rights of appeal.

Convinced that the out-of-state hearings were a sham, the center sued the INS. It argued that the refugees had been deprived of their right to due process because they were, in effect, being denied the right to counsel. District Court Judge Alcee Hastings agreed and issued an order prohibiting the INS from holding hearings for anyone not represented by an attorney. This order effectively blocked deportations from remote facilities.

In 1985 Forester left the Haitian Refugee Center (although he remained active on its board of directors) and was replaced as supervising attorney by Cheryl Little, who joined the center soon after her graduation from the University of Miami School of Law.

A year later "Baby Doc" Duvalier left Haiti under pressure. "We all thought, 'Great, we can close lots of our files, our work is over, a new day has dawned,'" Little recalls. But her jubilation was premature. A succession of wobbly governments rose and fell as military factions jostled for power. People began fleeing in greater numbers, and interdiction on the high seas increased dramatically. The Coast Guard bragged about its 90-percent success rate of catching refugees. According to a report submitted to the House Judiciary Committee in November 1991, during the previous ten years, 22,940 Haitians had been picked up by the Coast Guard. Of those thousands, only eleven were considered to have credible claims for asylum.

On September 30, 1991, a military coup toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been chosen by nearly 70 percent of Haitian voters during the December 1990 elections. For almost two months the United States suspended repatriations. When they began again on November 18, the Haitian Refugee Center filed suit against Secretary of State James Baker.

"We argued that the Haitians were entitled to a fair interview as to why they fled Haiti before being forcibly returned," Little recounts. The center's lawsuit pointed out that the interviews often lasted no more than five minutes and were conducted by INS officers with little or no knowledge of conditions in Haiti. Even the name of Raoul Cedras, the coup leader and de facto head of state, was unfamiliar to them. In making their case, Little and other lawyers for the center described instances in which repatriated Haitians had been arrested and tortured. Some escaped the country a second time, only to find themselves back in front of an unsympathetic asylum officer yet again.

The lawsuit was heard by District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins, who issued three separate restraining orders blocking repatriations, and prompted the INS to replace its interviewers. By mid-January 1992, the new interviewers were judging 85 percent of claims made by the boat people to be credible. In the wake of Atkins's order, those hearings were being held at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba.

But problems in the asylum process quickly returned: The Guantanamo operation was hopelessly -- even dangerously -- disorganized, the percentage of successful asylum claims plummeted after INS interviewers were officially encouraged to deny cases, and most disheartening, Judge Atkins's orders were overturned. On January 31, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court voted eight-to-one to lift the ban on repatriations, and in late May, President George Bush directed the INS to repatriate Haitians without investigating their asylum claims at all.

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