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By age 16, Charles was a father. The teenager decided to leave Haiti to provide for his baby girl. "He looks like a minor. He acts like a minor," says Shannon LaGuerre, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center attorney representing him. "They should have let him go from the very beginning. This is a child."
Charles's birth certificate, authenticated by the national archives in Haiti, shows he was born in September 1990. But U.S. officials have tagged the document as potentially fraudulent. The government also points to dental and bone tests that peg his age as 20 years or older. LaGuerre says the tests aren't scientifically reliable. Indeed they are not admissible in federal court.
Judges often automatically conclude Haitian documents are fraudulent, say several lawyers who handled the refugees' cases. Advocates admit there is a cottage industry of document fraud, but it's unfair to deem every one a fake. "A lot of them had strong stories, but they didn't have basic things like birth certificates or police reports to substantiate persecution," says Callan Garcia of Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami, which handled about 20 cases. "They literally came with only the shirts on their backs."
Asylum seekers from more stable, developed countries like Venezuela can be more successful in their claims because they have supporting documents that look more authentic.
Many refugees withdrew claims after the first few were denied in July. They lost hope. They missed their families, homes, and food. None of the lawyers could name a refugee from the Hallandale landing who had been granted asylum.
Part of the problem might be an immigration judge named Rex Ford, who handled the refugees' cases. (His office cited a no-interview policy when New Times called for comment.) Ford, a Nova Southeastern University graduate, has the third-highest denial rate of Haitian asylum cases among Miami's 24 judges, according to TRAC Immigration, a Syracuse University records clearinghouse. He denied 97.6 of Haitian cases that went before him between 2000 and 2005. Those who were not Haitian fared better before Ford, who denied 90.5 of all his cases. Yet, nationally, in 2006, federal statistics show Haitians recorded the highest number of asylum claims granted.
"The denial of asylum was expected," says Forester, the senior policy advocate at Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami. "It's Judge Rex Ford. I mean that's the only answer. He was the only one hearing the claims."
Frannso Brutus is among the few who remain in Broward. Asked about his case, he chuckles and shakes his head, his wiry frame erect behind a wooden table. His words come firm; his voice rises.
"They haven't done anything for us," he says. "Since I came here, no one has gotten political asylum, but I'm a Christian and my hope is with God."
A few miles down the road in Hallandale, Mary Beth Bell, a middle-age waitress at a beer-and-burger shack, remembers the day the Haitians came ashore. "It was heartbreaking, gut-wrenching," she says. "I thought they wouldn't get sent back.... I thought they'd get to stay. That really hit me. If I knew [they'd be sent back], I would have handed them 20 bucks and said, Go! Go!"
New Times Broward-Palm Beach staff writer Amy Guthrie contributed to this story.