Haitians Sent Home

Refugees fled slavery, slaughter, and starvation, and got rejected.

"Every time I say things can't get worse for the Haitians, they do, so I've stop saying it," says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which handled 37 of the Hallandale refugees' cases. "There have been so many harsh measures directed at Haitians it's hard to envision an end in sight."

Indeed Haitians have been leaving their half of the island of Hispaniola, about 700 miles from Miami, on boats for decades.

Many fled in the 1960s to escape the terror, torture, and killing at the hands of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his Tonton Macoute thugs. When the dictator died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, continued the violence, and the exodus burgeoned. Often forgotten is that some 25,000 Haitians arrived in South Florida around the same time 125,000 Cubans landed during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. But because of the 1966 Cuban Readjustment Act, which gives residents of Fidel Castro's island special rights, Cubans were allowed to stay while most Haitians were denied asylum.

Haitian migrants await Border Patrol processing.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Haitian migrants await Border Patrol processing.
Henry Petithomme, a Haitian-American, staged a hunger strike aimed at pushing the U.S. to let the Haitian refugees stay.
C. Stiles
Henry Petithomme, a Haitian-American, staged a hunger strike aimed at pushing the U.S. to let the Haitian refugees stay.

In 1981 the Reagan administration ordered the Coast Guard to stop suspected Haitian boats and turn them around. It was believed the economy, not politics, brought them here. And that wasn't good enough for the federal government.

After Baby Doc was ousted in 1986, political instability continued. It worsened after the democratic election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He took office in February 1991 but was violently overthrown seven months later. Three years into Haiti's military rule, the United States led a 21,000-strong force that pried control from the regime and returned Aristide to power.

In the years that followed, American presidents continued to turn away Haitian boats. Beginning in 2001, the federal government adopted a secret no-release policy for Haitian asylum seekers, while refugees of other nationalities were freed at a 91 percent rate, according to a Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center report. The second Bush administration gave the strange rationale that releasing Haitians could stoke terrorism — that terrorists might start posing as Haitian refugees.

"God help us all if our government can't tell the difference between a Middle Eastern terrorist and a Haitian boat person," Little quips.

Despite Aristide's 2004 exit from the country and recent political stability under President René Préval, Haitians have continued to flee because of widespread kidnappings, gang violence, and destruction caused by hurricanes. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne left 300,000 Haitians homeless and 3,000 dead and submerged parts of Port-de-Paix and the island of Tortue, from which the March ship departed.

Despite these many travails, the U.S. government has not extended to Haitians temporary protected status, which would allow them to stay in the States while their country heals. It regularly bestows the relief to Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, where suffering has been less constant.

"There's no question that Haitians fully qualify. It's completely senseless," says Steven Forester, a senior policy advocate at Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, or Haitian Women of Miami. "The reason they don't get it is blatant discrimination and racism and a lack of political power."

Daniel Batiste is one of 21 Haitians still locked in the Broward Transitional Center. It's November 1. His hair is short, and he wears a federal-issued neon orange shirt and pants, white socks, and leather sandals.

He is gawky and shifts his weight like an anxious teenager when he greets a New Times reporter. Teased about not looking his interviewer in the eye, he quickly glances up and reveals a wide smile and a gap between his front teeth. He sits and folds his hands on his lap.

His lanky legs stretch below the long wooden table in the fluorescent-lit room lined with books. Not far away is a computer lab and sterile cafeteria. Federal officials, who took nearly four months to decide whether to grant an interview, allow him only 30 minutes for the meeting. You might think it's either a glacial-moving bureaucracy or part of a strategy to keep the refugees' stories from the public eye.

Eyes cast down, Daniel begins to tell his story in an unwavering voice so soft that one must strain to listen.

His family lives in a concrete-block, dirt-floor home in Port-de-Paix. His mother birthed 17 children, and he was among a lucky handful that survived. His father worked construction until he fell from a coconut tree. "No more heavy lifting," the doctor said.

Daniel finished the 10th grade after sporadically attending school. He hoped to study film, but his family couldn't pay the tuition. His parents made a living hawking second-hand clothes imported from the United States for a 10 to 20 percent cut of the profits.

His older cousin, Wisler Telcy, lived next door and worked as a tailor. He gave Daniel small jobs like pinning folds in trousers in exchange for food. In 1995, Telcy fled Haiti on a boat and settled in South Florida.

By 2001, Daniel had begun working for a political party to earn some money, and a few years later his brother Jeremie took over as chief security guard for a local delegate with Aristide's party, Lavalas. When the president was ousted in 2004, Jeremie ducked into hiding.

Two years later, after Préval came to power, Jeremie returned to live with his family. He wrongly believed his life was no longer in danger. On February 7, Daniel says, an angry mob knocked on the family's door around 9 p.m. His brother answered it.

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