Unintended Consequences

After thirteen years in Miami, Omila Foufoune Cesaire faces deportation to the Haiti she fled in fear

This past April, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, Carrie Meek's son, sponsored the HRIFA Improvement Act of 2005 to remedy the glitch, including a provision to "expand coverage to most Haitians who arrived in the U.S. by air."

"It's really key that this act cover those people who came by air," says Meek, who has visited Haiti five times this year alone. "The people who used false documents to get here were fleeing for their lives -- literally. They arrived at MIA and for the most part admitted the fact that they were leaving Haiti and wanted to claim political asylum." That, he adds, is how the Department of Homeland Security detected them in the first place and knew to target them for deportation.

Meek's proposed legislation could mean little for Cesaire. It must first go to a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, then to the full committee, and then to the House for debate. Meanwhile time is running out; Cesaire received her deportation order in 2004. It is now on appeal, along with numerous others.

One temporary option for relief rests with the Department of Homeland Security. "The DHS has the ability to give waivers to asylum seekers who used fake documents," Meek says. "They are not doing that." But Forester says granting waivers is complex, adding "that's why a HRIFA Improvement Act is needed." He'd like to see Congress order DHS to suspend deportations and reinstate work permits.

Meek has previously butted heads with DHS over Haitian immigration issues, and the frustration is evident in his voice. In July he pushed to gain residency for a Haitian teenager whose case was taking so long to be processed by DHS the boy was about to become an adult while waiting, which would have triggered automatic deportation. Ultimately the teen, Ernso Joseph, was allowed to stay.

Graham and Meek acknowledge that the current political climate is not friendly to immigration issues. "The House environment is not what it should be to make sure we have this HRIFA Improvement Act," Meek laments. Yet with each deportation the misery compounds. Not only are families broken up (Cesaire would have to leave her children behind with her husband) but also Haiti's subsistence economy is further eroded. Haitians living in the U.S. often support extended families back home with the money they earn here. When working Haitians are deported, families go broke, creating more instability and more reasons for people to flee the country. That, of course, is more work for the Coast Guard.

This is an argument Forester would like to impress on lawmakers -- that it's in our national interest to allow these people to remain.

It's also in our national interest to act with compassion and logic toward ordinary people about to be harshly punished for what amounts to a technicality. "What we're saying is that, once they're here, they should have due process that's fair and humane," Meek says. "This is a life-and-death situation."

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