Little Goes A Long Way

Immigration attorney Cheryl Little spent years banging her head against INS bureaucracy, until a Haitian boat cracked it open

To fill the gap in services, Little, then director of Florida Rural Legal Services in Miami, started the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center the same year on a few hundred thousand dollars in grants and with a tiny staff. They inherited 3000 cases immediately, mostly Hispanic clients. They waded into the seedy underworld of the scandal-plagued Krome detention center, located just east of the Everglades in south Miami-Dade. In six years, FIAC has grown to four offices, eighteen attorneys, seventeen paralegals, and a $2.3 million budget. Little estimates they've closed more than 30,000 cases in six years, a phenomenal rate that underscores just how great the need is here.

After terrorists leveled the World Trade Center last year, the situation for immigrants got much worse. "Since September 11, I can't keep up with the number of provisions coming down from Washington that affect our immigrant community," Little laments, making a steeple with her fingers. "The refugee program was practically shut down." She argues that potential terrorists are unlikely to try the asylum route as a devious way into the country because there are many easier ways to go. Refugee claims are scrutinized much more stringently than other types of petitions. "My question is, are the laws making us safer? I think we are spending a lot of money targeting the wrong people." (Several of the September 11 terrorists came in on student visas.)

That, at least, is nothing new. In the late Seventies, the now-defunct Haitian Refugee Center (which Little joined in 1985 after graduating from the University of Miami's law school) uncovered a widespread government policy called the "Haitian Program," which employed a number of duplicitous methods for deporting Haitian asylum-seekers. Methods such as extending work permits one year, then using those permits the next to find and deport Haitians in sham hearings. This at a time when the bloody Duvalier family regime was enjoying its second decade of brutal repression. The center sued and won new cases for 4000 Haitians whose asylum claims had been illegally denied. After Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, the government began a new policy of detaining large numbers of immigrants seeking asylum in enormous centers like Krome.

Still the refugees came. The late Eighties through the mid-Nineties saw the meltdown of what was left of Haitian society by the long period of instability after "Baby Doc" Duvalier's 1986 ouster from the country. In 1997 Little worked with advocates such as U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek and prominent Haitian activists Marleine Bastien and Jean-Robert Lafortune to get Haitians included in the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, which exempted hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Central Americans from the harsher provisions of the 1996 anti-immigration laws. But Haitians were left out, and more than 100,000 were due for deportation under the new laws. The advocates fought a trench war in Congress and won some protection for about 40,000 people.

September 1991 offers a weird bit of déjà vu to the current situation in Miami. As Little worked the phone Saturday, the afternoon sun cast her reflection onto a framed portrait of Haitian refugees taken eleven years ago. They are shown pleading with the U.S. government to help after the coup d'état that temporarily displaced Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Artistide. In the black and white photograph, a Haitian man holds a sign reading, "President Bush: How will you feel if you get overthrown after being elected by the people? Bush: Stop killing Haitians." And now, some of the same people stand outside the INS building to petition another Bush (ironically our first president to be undemocratically elected) for protection from Aristide's corrupt rule.

As Little sat in her office Monday evening, she heard some bad news: The INS was deporting nineteen Haitians still held aboard the Coast Guard cutter because they didn't make it to shore. She sighed and looked out the window. Another small battle lost. And more work to do.

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