Little Goes A Long Way

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

Cheryl Little was halfway through a strategic meeting with her staff at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) Tuesday afternoon, October 29, when her assistant broke in with the news: A large boatload of Haitians had run aground near Key Biscayne. People were jumping into the water, running down the streets, trying to stop cars on the Rickenbacker Causeway. The phones were ringing off the hook.

In the next two hours, Little worked the lines hard, took calls from the media, and tried like hell to get out to the shut-down causeway. In seventeen years of fighting for the rights of Haitian refugees who wash up regularly on South Florida's shores, FIAC's executive director knew that timing is often the difference between life and death for these people. To be sent back could mean torture or worse at the hands of Haiti's poorly controlled political thugs; or a slower languishing from hunger, disease, random violence, and other "normal" conditions in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

But unlike many others in years past, this precarious vessel, filled with over 200 desperate souls, seemed to have timed its entrance into Miami -- and onto the national scene -- perfectly. It happened on a slow news afternoon precisely one week before a gubernatorial election considered by many to be a referendum on America's president. Television cameras swooped in to capture the spectacle of sunburned and exhausted refugees, including pregnant women and children, jumping, swimming, and running for their lives. National news programs ran periodic updates on the drama, and talking heads outside Miami boiled it all down to two main themes -- the gaping hole a rickety Haitian boat had just torn in America's post-September 11 border, and the inexplicably harsh policy of detention and nearly certain deportation the Bush administration has imposed on Haitian asylum-seekers. Much more generous interpretations of federal policies are applied to nearly every other group of nationals who can establish a credible claim of political persecution in their home countries. Under the U.S. government's "wet foot/dry foot" policy, people who make it to shore can ask for asylum, whereas those caught at sea are detained and most often deported without a hearing. Most refugees who make it to land and pass a "credible fear" interview are released from detention so they can meet with attorneys and prepare their asylum cases, Little says. Cubans, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the Cold War, are in an even more rarefied category. They are given automatic asylum.

Little spent two days making the rounds of talk shows and news programs, attempting to demystify a tangled history of U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians. Tuesday afternoon her pager blew up with calls, and her cell phone battery died in the middle of a rather important conversation. "And I was on the phone with Wolf Blitzer!" she recalls with a laugh. She was endlessly recycled through the CNN mill of shows, including Connie Chung and Paula Zahn vehicles, and became part of the NBC Nightly News broadcast with Tom Brokaw. Wednesday morning, she was gently grilled by Good Morning America host Charles Gibson, who opened with, "The question of the morning: Why are there different laws for Haitians than other immigrants?" Little contended the reason was pure and simple discrimination. "Our government claims that they're indefinitely detaining the Haitian asylum-seekers in order to save their lives [by discouraging dangerous sea crossings]," she said. "But I really believe this policy is about keeping Haitians out, not about saving their lives."

But working the media is not even half of Little's job. She was also pumping the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Coast Guard for information, trying to find out when, exactly, she could send teams of attorneys in to begin representing the detainees. They need to be informed of their rights, and the attorneys have to petition INS -- which balked at directly paroling detainees despite the fact that most of them made it to dry land -- for bond hearings. During one call she asked one of her paralegals about the condition of the 28 Haitian women being held in a Broward detention facility. "How were their spirits?" she queried, taking notes. "Did they seem exhausted? Confused? What ages? Mostly twenties and early thirties, okay. No English? No French? Okay. One Dominican lady. Okay, well, we've got our work cut out for us." Little explained that most of the women arrived with fathers or brothers, and the men (detained at the Krome facility in south Miami-Dade) were carrying, on tiny scraps of paper, the names and addresses of family members living in Miami -- critical information the attorneys needed to help the women gain release.

Little had also been helping to coordinate the many demonstrations local Haitian community leaders had been staging to pressure the Bush administration during the narrow window before the election. They all know that since the election is over, the attention-deficit media will begin focusing on a crisis somewhere else, and much of the momentum for changing the Haitian policy will be lost. In December 2001 a boat carrying 187 refugees was escorted to Miami by the Coast Guard. Twenty people jumped overboard; two drowned and eighteen made it to shore. The rest (167) were detained for up to ten months, during which advocates discovered the Bush administration's secret policy of indefinitely detaining Haitians to discourage mass migrations. Most were sent back, several dozen just four days before the most recent boat grounding. "We've been trying to get national attention on this for ten months now," Little observes. "We had senators, human rights organizations, even Danny Glover. Despite all that, we weren't making any headway. Now we've got an avalanche."

By Friday Little was in a state of controlled agitation bordering on exhaustion. She hadn't slept much or managed to get a square meal into her body. A fish sandwich from Burger King cooled into inedibility on her desk as she made and took an endless stream of calls -- attorneys, advocates, media, people who wanted to help, and those who saw her on TV and wanted to complain about the U.S.'s lax immigration policies. "Senator Kennedy's office, Congressman Nelson's, Alex Penelas's, and Frederica Wilson's," she ticked off the list of important calls she hadn't had time to return: "I was just on the phone with a partner from Holland and Knight and they've got 24 attorneys who have agreed to help with cases."

Because of the election, Democrats like Jeb Bush challenger Bill McBride were using the Haitian crisis to hammer the Bush brothers and rally the black Democratic base to the polls. At a McBride rally at Miami-Dade Community College Saturday afternoon, featuring former President Bill Clinton, several top Democrats took their shots at alleged Bush indifference to the Haitians. State senator and soon-to-be congressman Kendrick Meek contended that McBride is "willing to make the phone call," a reference to earlier in the week, when Meek's mom Carrie confronted Bush at a rally and asked him to call his brother in the White House to free the Haitians. (He declined.) Jeb insisted he opposed the detention policy, although he had kept quiet about it until it was exposed. Still the media and political pressure did appear to make a difference. Friday, the Haitians were allowed access to lawyers, a privilege not accorded to many of their compatriots from the boat last December, according to congressional testimony last month from Haitian advocate Wendy Young. And they will likely be allowed to apply for a release bond.

Little doesn't see this as a weakening in administration policy, however. She says the difference is that the December refugees had fewer legal rights because they didn't make it to land, while the new "dry foot" group is legally eligible for parole by INS, or bond by a judge. "INS could parole them immediately, but they're refusing to do that," she says. "So this is not the INS, out of the goodness of their hearts, changing a policy."

The key to making any headway on the Haitian issue will be garnering the support of a wide coalition in Miami. Encouragingly on Friday, a gathering of African-American, Haitian, Cuban, and Anglo mayors, commissioners, and legislators met in county commission chambers to draft a resolution to President Bush asking that Haitian asylum-seekers not be detained indefinitely. They also talked about organizing a demonstration in Washington. Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, calling the Florida Straits "the largest cemetery in the world, because of policy," warned that advocates of rights for Haitians should not let opponents pit them against the Cuban Adjustment Act because they will lose natural allies. "People are going to try to use this and try to divide and conquer us," he intoned. "We need another adjustment act for Haitians."

As they were meeting, Little, across town, called local Cuban pilot José Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue. She asked him to appear at a press conference Haitian leaders were giving in Little Haiti that afternoon. He agreed. Heading to the press conference, Little talked strategy with Dina Paul Parks, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, based in New York. Parks wanted to organize a national day of protest with Haitians all over the country: "I know the folks in Miami are focused on this election, but we can't lose that momentum. What about trying to mobilize something on the [Washington] mall?" Little wrinkled her nose slightly in disdain for local politics, and nodded assent: "I agree with you. This needs to focus on Washington."

A diminutive Canadian with boundless energy and a dry wit, Little is a curious combination of passionate advocate and cynical pragmatist. In blue jeans and a casual red shirt dressed up with a black jacket, intense brown eyes framed by rectangular glasses, she appeared comfortably outfitted for a long campaign. The INS has been wishing Little would go away for quite some time. She keeps an ironic reminder of her battles in a picture frame behind her desk -- a newspaper quotation of a comment made about her in 1989 by then-INS district director Perry Rivkind: "I think she should get married, get a husband, have some children, cook for him, let him support her and help him to contribute to society." Well, that was then.

For Little, this latest flurry of activity, while important because of the chance to galvanize national support, is just one more skirmish in the continuum of the U.S.'s problematic relationship with Haiti and its people. And with balancing national security and human rights.

In 1996, after a couple of homegrown militia boys led by ex-Army grunt Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma, legislators passed several laws aimed at curtailing immigrant rights, ostensibly to discourage acts of terrorism. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act allowed immigrants to be deported for a wide range of offenses, including past crimes. As a result, the INS more than doubled the number of immigrants held in detention facilities. The agency farms out more than half of these to county jails. The same year, Congress passed a law making it illegal for the federally funded Legal Services Corporation to help illegal aliens.

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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