By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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.
Later that morning at a coffee shop near the Miami River, Forester lamented what he describes as the methodical dismantling of the Haitian Refugee Center, an organization to which he devoted himself for years. Since he was dismissed, he has not looked for another job and remains preoccupied by the center's misfortunes.
Forester joined the refugee organization after graduating in 1978 from law school at the University of California at Davis. He was a young man then, tall and gangly, with an intense passion for his work. The center drew all his attention until 1985, when he left to become legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. He returned as supervising attorney in 1992. Roughly two years later a man named Guy Victor became executive director.
According to Victor, Forester was let go because of a lack of funds. But the 44-year-old attorney says he and Victor had been battling for months over Victor's failure to initiate a serious fundraising effort. Since last summer, when the center's financial situation became acute, Forester had been lobbying the board of directors to have Victor replaced.
Instead Forester himself was terminated on October 31. He claims Victor then changed the office locks and refused to speak to him or grant him access to the center's legal files. Forester was forced to reconstruct his overflowing caseload from immigration-court printouts. Although that enabled him to officially withdraw as attorney of record from the center's cases, he has been unable to contact many of his former clients. Scenes like the one in McCormack's courtroom lead him to believe the center has simply dropped some of the cases for which he'd been responsible, abandoning dozens of refugees.
Victor insists there has been a smooth transition between Forester and the attorney hired to replace him, and that the center is exchanging information with Linda Kelly, an attorney who worked under Forester until January 1995. "Steve was not cooperative after he was laid off," Victor says.
While their advocates bicker, Haitian refugees are greeted by an increasing lack of interest from the world at large. The urgency of their asylum claims has been muted by the effectiveness of the September 1994 U.S. intervention in Haiti, which led to last month's presidential election, only the second truly democratic vote in Haitian history. "You could make the argument for all the Haitians that they could just go back," Forester concedes. "But the reality is they have the right to try to get asylum. If you were persecuted in the past, you can win asylum, regardless of what happens in the future. And nobody knows what is going to happen in Haiti. Virtually no one has been disarmed in Haiti, the U.N. and U.S. troops are going to withdraw, and there are still killings going on."
Even if the killings stop, both Forester and Victor say there will be a need for the Haitian Refugee Center. Without the distraction of human rights violations in Haiti, the lawyers could concentrate on protecting the civil rights of Haitian Americans. Asylum cases could be replaced by efforts to combat job and housing discrimination.
Miami's estimated 100,000 Haitians bring myriad problems to the center. Regardless of the organization's ability to assist them, they sit patiently on the metal folding chairs that line the whitewashed walls of the waiting room. "The only place where a Haitian feels safe, where he feels he won't be insulted and he won't be mistreated, is the center," Victor asserts. There are no fussy decorative touches here except for a wooden ballot box, placed prominently in the middle of the room, a reminder that free, democratic elections in Haiti have long been the community's obsession.
In addition to blaming his predecessor for the center's financial difficulties, Guy Victor also faults the American belief that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return in October 1994 solved Haiti's internal problems. "The perception is that democracy has been established in Haiti so there is no need to provide funding for legal work for Haitians," he says.
But the forces behind the decline of the Haitian Refugee Center are not so simple. Nonprofit organizational specialists, sent here by the Ford Foundation in January to try and help the center get back on its feet, shake their heads in befuddlement at the group's administrative procedures. Financial records are in such disarray that the center's auditors, the accounting firm Kitaif, Goode & Company, have attached disclaimers to recent statements and audits prepared by the firm, pointing out that the figures may not accurately reflect the center's financial status because of its bookkeeping practices. One of the organizational specialists, Clarence Elliot, hypothesized during a recent visit to Miami that the problem lay in culturally distinct approaches to management.
Although Elliot, who happens to be a black American, was trying to be tactful, his observations sting those Haitians who reflexively attribute the center's precarious circumstances to racism. Criticism such as Elliot's is thus interpreted as an unfair judgment that Haitians are incapable of running their own affairs. Tony Jeanthenor, president of the center's board of directors, says he believes that certain people (whom he declines to name) want to undermine the center because it is a black organization. Guy Victor, for his part, initially refused to speak to a white reporter because "white reporters will never write anything positive about our community."
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."
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.
By that point Little had left the Haitian Refugee Center to coordinate legal assistance to Haitians for Florida Rural Legal Services. In August 1992, Steven Forester returned to his former post of supervising attorney. Looking back, the lawyers describe the struggle to ban repatriations as a victory, despite their ultimate defeat at the Supreme Court. Although they failed to outlaw the policy, the center's lawsuit resulted in more than 10,000 Haitian refugees being allowed to journey to Florida from Guantanamo to pursue their asylum claims (at least 26,000 refugees were sent back to Haiti). The Guantanamo refugees were divvied up among various nonprofit legal-assistance organizations, who volunteered to carry their claims to court.
While Forester was working on other projects away from the Haitian Refugee Center in the late Eighties, the center's charismatic founding executive director, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, resigned. A search committee made up of board members selected Rolande Dorancy to replace him. The 27-year-old Haitian woman, chosen from an undisclosed pool of applicants, had little administrative experience, and her appointment in October 1990 raised concerns about the secretive methods of the search committee. Forester, in particular, was disturbed, and he argued vehemently (to no avail) with other members of the board that the selection process should be reopened.
Dorancy soon clashed with members of her legal staff, prompting the resignations of Cheryl Little and staff attorney Esther Cruz in 1992. Sources say the conflicts ranged from trivial gripes such as misplaced telephone messages to more troubling charges that Dorancy directed the lawyers to ignore the asylum cases of those refugees who did not support Aristide. Little's high-visibility role as the center's spokeswoman also rankled Dorancy, who was troubled by the image of a white woman speaking for the Haitian community.
By the spring of 1993 the legal staff, which had totaled thirteen at its peak, began to shrink as employees left and were not replaced. The sole Creole interpreter began doubling as a receptionist. In the first of a series of detailed memos, Forester, now back as supervising attorney, warned of inadequate financial and legal resources, and volunteered to spend three months as a fundraiser. He also offered to arrange for one of the center's former fundraisers to return on a volunteer basis.
Neither suggestion was adopted, but for a brief period of time financial concerns were subsumed by external developments. After months of national lobbying, refugee advocates were rewarded in October 1993 by the announcement of a moratorium on Haitian deportations that remained in effect until the summer of 1995. In the meantime, however, discontent with Dorancy's administrative skills mounted.
In May 1994, Dorancy announced she would resign in order to pursue an opportunity to work with Haitian refugees in the Bahamas, and a search committee once again began casting about for a new executive director. They quickly settled on Guy Victor, a 52-year-old Haitian activist who had headed the New York chapter of the "Tenth Department," a Haitian exile group formed in 1991 to support Aristide. (The name of the group derives from the nine departments, or provinces, that constitute Haiti.) Victor was strongly recommended for the Miami job by Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a long-time associate of Victor.
The executive director's appointment caused a stir in local Haitian refugee circles. During Victor's three-year tenure at the Tenth Department, unsubstantiated allegations had swirled though the community, surfacing occasionally in the Haitian media, and raising questions about financial accountability.
Those old allegations still irritate Victor, who points out that he has spent his life working with grassroots organizations to benefit the Haitian community, and that until he was offered his present post, which pays $40,000 per year, he was never paid for his efforts. He blames past criticism of the Tenth Department on forces who sought to discredit Haiti's pro-democracy movement.
Victor's political activity started early, when he was a teenager in Port-au-Prince opposed to the increasing brutality of Franaois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's government. When he was twenty, he fled to exile in Spain. Two years later, in 1965, he moved to the United States and quickly became involved in the civil rights movement, participating in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as well as protesting the war in Vietnam. From 1972 to 1986 he was director of Haitian Americans for Economic, Racial, and Social Justice. He later served as executive director of the Haitian Relief Fund USA, Inc., and chairman of Haitian Enforcement Against Racism.
Though soft-spoken, Victor is quick to anger and is capable of radiating intense hostility, especially when questioned about the condition of the Haitian Refugee Center. As far as the center's finances go, he stresses that he inherited a disaster, though he balks at providing the organization's tax forms, which by law are supposed to be available for public inspection.
"A few weeks after I took this job, I couldn't make my payroll," he recalls. "There was already a deficit of $100,000. We had to ask the Ford Foundation for an advance." (The Ford Foundation gave the center $125,000 in 1994. Other large funders were the Florida Bar, $109,684, and Metro-Dade County, $82,977.) Victor points to unnecessarily expensive leases on office equipment and exorbitant phone bills of more than $6000 per month as evidence that mismanagement predated his arrival.
Victor says Ford came through, not only with financial assistance but with technical help as well. Organizational development specialists from Washington, D.C.'s Center for Community Change received funding from the Ford Foundation to travel to Miami to provide the center and the board of directors with an analysis of what had gone wrong and how to fix it. A review of the center's financial condition, prepared by specialist Tim Siegel in June 1995, chronicled a steady disintegration.
By January 1995, the center's operating deficit had grown to $132,000. In February the center stopped paying IRS payroll taxes. In March the employees' medical insurance was allowed to lapse. On April 13, 1995, staff members received their last regular paychecks. Although some employees continued to volunteer sporadically, the full-time legal staff shrank to two people: Steven Forester, who had agreed to let the center owe him unpaid wages, and a paralegal.
"I have no reason to think that any unethical or criminal activity has occurred," Siegel wrote in his review. "The problem is more that the financial management system the current board and staff inherited lacks some essential products, practices, and capacity." He went on to scold: "The omissions and errors in the financial documents I have seen to date are too numerous to detail here . . . . The 1996 budget shows total income of $600,000 as 'expected' when in fact approximately only $71,000 seems highly likely and another $75,000 to $125,000 seems probable, leaving at least $404,000 to question."
Siegel also noted that the financial crisis was likely to jeopardize the center's legal work: "Pending cases for asylum or other immigration status are at risk of being inadequately served due to reduced staff capacity and curtailed office systems. The current HRC caseload is very heavy and sped-up due to the recent addition of more judges to the court system. It is possible that the clients' legal welfare is at risk."
Despite the crisis, Victor delayed notifying his board of directors, reluctantly releasing only bits and pieces of information. "The board just increasingly did not know what was going on," recalls Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP and a former board member at the center. Obi Nweze (formerly known as Johnnie McMillian) says the board finally demanded to be informed of the status of unpaid employees. She resigned from her post as first vice president on July 4, 1995, the day after Victor discussed the contents of Siegel's report.
Although Obi Nweze insists that she resigned in order to devote more time to the NAACP, she admits that Victor's failure to reveal the extent of the organization's money problems inserted a wedge of suspicion into the board members' relationships with him. "Initially there was no reason to be distrustful," she says, "not until the question of money came up."
Board members wonder how the problem could have been allowed to fester for so long. "I don't think Guy Victor is incompetent," says Steve Malagodi, a producer at WLRN-FM and a board member who has supported the center's work for more than a decade. "He's obviously a very intelligent man." Malagodi adds that the possibility of corruption seems unlikely: "Frankly, I don't know what funds there are to misuse. It's not like they have a million-dollar budget and that there's a slush fund they can dip into."
Instead Malagodi reasons that the center's problems are a reflection of the radical changes taking place in Haitian society following the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "If you have an organization that's built from a grassroots perspective in opposition to a vicious dictatorial regime, and your guys take power, then obviously there's got to be a change," he observes. Since last fall the politics of the Haitian community and, by extension, the Haitian Refugee Center, have become increasingly murky.
"The Haitian community is not united around anything at this point," Malagodi notes. "Before, the situation was clear -- there was a military coup and a president in exile." Now, although the need for the center is as urgent as ever -- hundreds of clients have asylum cases pending -- the community's priorities are shifting. Malagodi says he is unable to explain how the center was allowed to fall into such disarray. "It's very difficult for a non-Haitian to be privy to what's going on," he concedes. "It's a mystery to me, and I put it down to labyrinthine politics." Malagodi says he no longer feels he can help the center, and though he has not formerly resigned, he has stopped attending board meetings, effectively ending his participation.
Prominent members of the Haitian community have also begun to distance themselves. Claude Charles, director of Haitian services at the New Horizons Community Mental Health Center and an assistant professor at the University of Miami's School of Medicine, describes the center as having "a very twilight type of environment." He explains: "Myself, I'm living in America. I'm a professional living according to American standards, and that's the way I contributed to the creation of the Haitian Refugee Center. When I was there it was a serious matter. We had to fight to get Haitians asylum, to get them work permits. We were accountable. We had quantifiable goals and objectives."
Mona Michel, an ex-president of the board and sister of former Haitian prime minister Smarck Michel, says she, too, has withdrawn her participation. "I think the center should change gears," she remarks. "I told them, 'You need new blood, you need to open up the center to the young blood.' I was active for twelve years, and the new generation didn't take over."
Most Haitians are reluctant to criticize Guy Victor directly, and he takes this as a sign of their approval. "They have asked me to run for office," he claims, "and I would win, because I would get the Haitian vote, and because I work well with the Cuban community. But I'm not interested in becoming a politician because that would make me part of the system." Besides, he says, running the center is already like being mayor of Little Haiti.
"The Haitian community cares a lot for the center," he emphasizes. "If today there is a Little Haiti, it is because of the Haitian Refugee Center [which fought for the right of these people to live here]. We run into problems like any other agency, but we will never shut down, because we have the support of the community."
The support of donors, however, is less certain. The Ford Foundation has yet to approve funding for this year, though it has indicated it is willing to give approximately $60,000 if the center demonstrates an effort to work with the organizational specialists it sent to Miami. This past December the Florida Bar decided not to continue its generous funding after supporting the organization for more than ten years. "Basically we felt like the Haitian Refugee Center was operating beyond its means," says Paul Doyle, who oversees the Bar's Legal Assistance to the Poor grant program. "We were afraid of periodic shutdown." The center had also failed to provide the Bar with two years' worth of financial audits, he adds.
Victor downplays the Bar's drastic decision, insisting that it involved a trivial disagreement over production of an "official" audit. He also maintains that the board was fully informed of the financial problems from the beginning. "These people are giving you misinformation," he protests, despite the fact that several board members say otherwise.
He notes that the center has recently been providing the community with information about social security benefits and food stamps, and that he intends to open the center to a representative from the IRS to answer questions about income tax returns.
Meanwhile, it is unclear how much legal work is being accomplished. Victor says the center is handling everything from parole requests to asylum applications. Since Steven Forester left, Victor claims to have recruited three lawyers to handle cases on a pro-bono basis, in addition to hiring one new staff attorney. When contacted by a reporter, though, one of the lawyers, William Sanchez, said he had agreed to serve on a restructuring committee but was not performing any legal work.
Formed in January at the request of the Ford Foundation, which initially dubbed it a "crisis committee," the restructuring committee consists of three outsiders: Sanchez, an immigration attorney who once worked at the center, Joe Taggart, a Haitian businessman, and Vincent Carrodeguas, an accountant. "I think the first step is redefining the mission of the center, the second is making sure financial controls are in place, and the third is making sure legal representation is effective," Sanchez says by way of explaining how the center can get back on its feet.
Tim Siegel, who reviewed the organization last spring at the behest of the Ford Foundation, says he is finally seeing signs of improvement, citing the center's intentions to upgrade its financial management system, to computerize its records, and to train the board of directors about its duties and responsibilities. "I think they are making progress," he asserts. "It's hard and slow and everyone wishes it were quicker."
After learning of the two asylum hearings that were missed in January, Sanchez immediately contacted Gerry Ramos, the new staff attorney, and worked out a system of placing all new cases on a master calendar to prevent mishaps. At his suggestion, the center will also obtain a printout from the INS of all pending cases.
"A lot of the problems the center is facing are reflective of what is happening now in the Haitian community," Sanchez observes. "It's about the issue of stabilization." As Haitians in Haiti rethink their possibilities, so Haitians in Miami are adjusting to a new reality, he continues. And the Haitian Refugee Center must find a way of surviving without using a refugee crisis as a crutch. Perhaps the center should change its name to the Haitian Rights Center, Sanchez muses. "People have to realize," he says, "that without the Haitian Refugee Center, there is no focal point for the Haitian community.