Haitians Sent Home

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

Visitors included U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who didn't return several calls seeking comment for this story. They sat in folding chairs around the hunger striker.

After 15 days of Petithomme not eating, a doctor cautioned that his heartbeat had begun to flutter. Petithomme couldn't muster the energy to announce he was calling off the strike. His lashes flickered as middle-age Haitian women in housedresses prayed over him. His voice had become a whisper. His eyes were sunken, their whites sallow.

He handed a paper to a friend to read into a news microphone. "I have been on a hunger strike for 15 days in protest of the American government's policy regarding Haitian refugees," the friend read. "The current immigration policy is unfair and discriminatory."

The 30-foot sailboat that carried more than 100 Haitian refugees to Hallandale Beach.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The 30-foot sailboat that carried more than 100 Haitian refugees to Hallandale Beach.
Swami Lalitananda sits at the spot where she watched the Haitians come ashore.
C. Stiles
Swami Lalitananda sits at the spot where she watched the Haitians come ashore.

He requested the release of the 101 refugees. Then blue-suited City of North Miami rescue workers swooped in and delivered him to a hospital, where he recovered.

The same day Petithomme went home, more than a hundred people attended a wake for Lifaite Lully. It had taken several weeks to gain permission for the 24-year-old's mother, Isemaelite Vassor, to come from Haiti. Vassor looked small and vulnerable as she entered the Monique and Loriston Community Funeral Chapel on West Dixie Highway in North Miami around 8 p.m.

The room was nearly silent as she strode past walls decorated with pastoral scenes of Caribbean plantations, toward the casket and the bright lights of news camera crews. She walked slowly, with dread, dressed in a crisp white linen skirt and blouse and a matching broad-brimmed hat. Vassor hadn't seen her son since he bid her farewell in Haiti.

At the end of the aisle, Lully was laid out like a dignitary. The stainless-steel casket cost $4,000. He wore shined square-toe leather shoes, a taupe suit, and a silk tie. Even in death he was handsome, with almond-shape eyes and midnight black skin.

When she reached the open casket, Vassor collapsed. Fits came in violent spasms, followed by wails. Her hat tumbled to the floor and she stretched herself across the quieted body of her youngest son. Sorrow spread throughout the room, and a few Haitian women let loose loud sobs.

Emmanuel Vassor, Isemaelite's brother, steadied her. After the wake, he talked about his own clandestine boat trip to South Florida 14 years ago. "For me, if my nephew paid a price for those people [on the boat], I accept that," he says. "The only thing that would make me feel better is if they let the other people go free."

Lully was buried the next day, marking an unofficial end to a month of protest. There would be no more street rallies for those who came on that rickety wooden sailboat. Petithomme tried to sustain the conversation. He started an organization, Youth Power Movement, and staged daylong hunger strikes. He dropped off toiletries for the detainees. "It's the same thing that always happens," he says. "It's visible for the moment, and than afterwards, it's not the story that everybody wants to talk about anymore."

Tropical rains are pelting the sheet-metal roof of the Batiste family home in Port-de-Paix when New Times calls in early November. Water is pouring through. It's been falling for days. The family is surviving on cornmeal and rice. They have no money to buy gas to light the lamps. Only Daniel could fix the inverter that provides electricity.

At night they sit in darkness. Daniel's mother hopes his immigration battle is over soon. "Tell Daniel things haven't gotten better here, but his sister just had a baby on Tuesday," says François Batiste. "But we don't have money to eat."

Since March, they've spoken to him about four times, a few minutes each. There's enough time to say only "Hello. I'm alive. I miss you." He hasn't mentioned his asylum claim was denied in late September.

"I hope the government and the president give him an opportunity to live in that country," François says in Kreyol. "We would be very thankful to the whole of the United States."

But Daniel will likely be deported to Haiti soon. His asylum case was recently rejected even though Rosta Telfort, of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, says his case was the strongest of the handful of refugees she represented. The judge didn't believe his story because he didn't relate the ordeal during his first contact with federal officials, the day he arrived.

"They [ask only] very basic questions," Telfort says.

More than half of the Haitian refugees who arrived in Hallandale Beach have been deported, according to ICE. Fourteen minors were sent to a shelter and have since been taken in by family members or swept into the foster care system. Unaccompanied child refugees can stay in this country if they can prove abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

"I've seen a lot of detainees go," Daniel says. "When they leave, we all cry, because one of these days we know it will be our turn."

One particularly tangled case is that of Charles, who says his brother was killed on the ship. He and his 36-year-old first cousin, Jean Valsaint, say Charles's father died before he was born. His mother passed away when Charles was a few months old. His grandmother believed the family was cursed after his older sister died. He was taken in by relatives. Daily meals and clothes were rarities. While other children in the household attended school, Charles stayed home and cleaned. His uncle worked him like a slave.

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