Birth of a Misinterpretation

A Haitian refugee is denied asylum after honestly answering a question about his wife's protracted pregnancy

Applications for political asylum, when done right, are painstakingly prepared. Immigration attorneys quiz their clients about minor details, seeking to firm up wavering memories and uncover contradictory recollections. They focus on dates, places, action, in a laborious effort to mine fact from a bog of anecdote. Did the applicant belong to a political party? Was he ever arrested? Were any family members arrested? When? Where? By whom?

The accuracy and consistency of the accounts are crucial, because to win asylum a refugee must present a credible claim. Owing to the paucity of evidence -- documents are nonexistent; witnesses are usually back in the refugee's home country -- the outcome of an asylum case often comes down to whether the presiding official believes the applicant.

Such pressure didn't faze Jonel Larose, a 39-year-old Haitian tailor who fled his home in a small village on the island of La Gonƒve in 1992. Larose was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and after a brief stint at Guantanamo Naval Base was allowed to come to the United States to file a claim for political asylum.

Larose was one of more than 10,000 people released from Guantanamo as part of the settlement of a suit filed against the federal government on behalf of Haitian refugees. He didn't really think he'd need it, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service told him to retain counsel, so he sought legal assistance from the Pierre Toussaint Haitian Catholic Center. This past December, Claire White, a lawyer who has worked at the center since August, accompanied him to his interview.

White was optimistic about Larose's chances for asylum. A political activist who worked with a pro-Aristide neighborhood committee, Larose had been arrested and beaten by Macoutes. His grandfather, who had been the committee's president, was murdered. A hand grenade, tossed by unknown attackers at a demonstration Larose organized in 1992, killed several people when it exploded. Aristide's return and the presence of multinational forces in Haiti have increased stability, but under certain circumstances Haitians who can prove they suffered persecution in the past are still eligible for asylum.

And the interview went quite smoothly, White recalls, until asylum officer Michael Benjamin began asking routine questions about Larose's family members, who had remained in Haiti. When Larose proffered birth certificates for his six children, Benjamin noticed that the youngest had been born September 4, 1994 -- two years and nine months after his father had supposedly fled for his life.

Was he the father of this child? Benjamin asked. Yes, Larose affirmed. Had he gone back to Haiti since he fled? persisted the asylum officer. No, Larose replied; for the past three years straight he'd been working on fruit and vegetable farms in South Florida.

Three weeks after the interview, the INS sent Larose a Notice of Intent to Deny. "You were unable to relate consistent accounts or provide credible details regarding your whereabouts subsequent to your parole into the United States in March 1992," the notice reads. "Additionally, the submission of your September 1994 birth certificate of your youngest child indicates that you were in Haiti around January 1994. The existence of these trips to and from Haiti seriously undermines your claim that you are unable to return to Haiti as you would be arrested and killed . . . due to your political activities."

Claire White has filed a rebuttal. Larose, she argues, was not being deceptive when he offered up the 1994 birth certificate: Among Haitians, exceptionally long pregnancies are considered common and are attributed to a voodoo concept known as perdition.

"According to the voodoo world view, every Haitian is primarily defined with what is called a 'mystical mentality,'" contends anthropologist Claude Charles in an affidavit submitted along with White's rebuttal. "There is a supernatural world in constant interaction with the natural world with no boundaries between the two. As a result of the mystical mentality, most Haitians consider themselves subject to forces beyond their control. At the supernatural level exists a multitude of spirits, or 'loas,' who can . . . allow malevolent influences to penetrate the body of the one who has violated his agreement with [a] god or has betrayed the ancestral voodoo faith."

Dr. Michel Dodard knows of the concept as well. "It's a common belief among some Haitians who are uneducated to think that someone can carry a pregnancy for two or three years," says Dodard, director of the residency program for family medicine at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. "If you go to the countryside, people will tell you that the reason their child has difficulties is because he was carried for two or three years."

Adds Claire White: "I had a client who said she couldn't sit down for three years because she believed that her baby had stopped growing and moved into her lower back. She was afraid to rest her back because she thought the baby was there. They believe in this wholeheartedly."

In his affidavit, Claude Charles, who works as a consultant on Haitian services for the New Horizons Community Mental Health Center, calls perdition "a nurturing cultural myth to render dominant males comfortable with the possibility of infidelity from their female partners. The belief in perdition constructs an explanatory system that provides the male with a mechanism to accept infidelity through supernatural denial; it also provides the female with a mechanism to reduce adverse effect of guilt through rejection of responsibility."

Claire White argues in her rebuttal that it's unfair for the INS to put Larose in the position of having to determine whether his wife has been unfaithful. "The Service is trying to determine the credibility of the Applicant, not the status of his child," she asserts. "In the context of his culture, [the] Applicant's belief and testimony is not born out of deception. His belief is shared by thousands of Haitians, mostly those that were born and raised in rural communities, as was Mr. Larose, but also by well-educated urbanites."

Work records maintained by Larose's employer, Callery-Judge Grove in Loxahatchee, show that Larose has worked at the grove as a harvester for the past three years. "He's one of my regulars," says supervisor Kevin Coker. Larose's pay stubs, which were submitted as part of the rebuttal, indicate that he consistently showed up for work every week of December 1993 and January 1994, the time period during which he would have had to be in Haiti in order to father his child, assuming his wife had undergone a typical nine-month pregnancy.

The tall, boyish-looking Larose took a break from his work to discuss his immigration difficulties. Through an interpreter, he described his wife's protracted gestation with the same certitude an American might evince when speaking about the four years it normally takes to earn a college degree. Even before he fled Haiti in early 1992, Larose says, his wife appeared to be having difficulty carrying their child. Every week she and his mother visited the doctor together. After he was taken to Guantanamo, he recounts, he spoke to his wife by telephone. She had rubbed herself with a special potion that appeared to help the pregnancy, he recalls.

"Because of the problem, the baby was born in September 1994," Larose affirms. "Because of the problem, the baby was very small."

Citing confidentiality regulations, asylum officer Michael Benjamin refused to be interviewed about Larose's claim. A final decision regarding Claire White's rebuttal is pending. If asylum is denied, Larose can still appeal to an immigration judge.

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