Inside Little Haiti

Page 5 of 11

"I'm loaded with problems," said Erithe. She was prettily dressed in secondhand clothes, had the classically proportioned face of a fashion model, and was so terribly shy I felt I had captured her. "How will these problems get solved? I don't know. God will help me.

At least in the United States I can find some help."
She wanted to learn to read and write, then be trained for a trade, she wasn't sure what, never having had the luxury to think realistically about such prospects. None of this would happen any time soon, since before the month was out she'd be scrambling to find a ride to Jackson Memorial Hospital to give birth to her third child. As we waited for her husband to return from the tree nursery where he had found permanent employment, a jitney pulled up and out came Erithe's four-year-old, home from day care, and before long both of Erithe's daughters were tugging at their mother's arm, cranky and whining. Erithe gave a stoic sigh.

"We have had nothing to eat today," she said, "and there's no more juice for the children."

Any understanding of the Haitian experience in the United States begins at the Krome North Service Processing Center, on the edge of the Everglades just south of Tamiami Trail, where the INS detains illegal aliens, the overwhelming majority of them Haitian refugees seeking political asylum, for months and sometimes years, until these refugees are inevitably deported. More than one observer has likened Krome to a concentration camp, and although that label is hyperbolic and unfair, it casts a gloomy shadow of truth, because Krome exists on the threshold of an expanding American intolerance toward the world's downtrodden and their dream of sanctuary within our border.

This winter I visited Krome three times. No journalist had been granted access to the facility's interiors since last summer, after a devastating barracks fire, then the hurricane, disrupted an operation already trademarked by controversy. On my third try, however, after a two-week hunger strike by the Haitian detainees fizzled out in early January, Mike Rozos, Krome's second-in-command, judged his house sufficiently in order to agree to my request for a walk-through.

In 1980 Krome A an old Department of Defense missile base built in the Sixties A was appropriated by the INS and used as a human stock pen during the Mariel boatlift. By 1981 the Marielitos were gone but the Haitians A 200 of them, shoulder to shoulder A were not. Riots broke out, suicides were attempted. The federal courts capped Krome's population at a more humane level, though the Reagan administration refused to provide secure legal status, as it had the Cubans, to the detainees it was required to release, and Haitians have been trapped inside Krome's pointedly glacial loop ever since.

If you ignored the coiled tubes of concertina wire, Krome's architectural pretensions were eerily collegiate, evoking campus life, a small vocational school with strict regimens, a dress code constrained to orange jumpsuits, and a student body of young black men and women whose monastic silence underscored the gravity of their aspirations. As Rozos had told me when I talked to him at length in December, he had "the whole place painted Florida flamingo colors." Nothing shocked overtly. Women sat outdoors at picnic tables in a recreation pavilion, playing cards, mumbling in a bank of pay phones, staring into space. I was led down a sidewalk to a compound within a compound, swaddled in razor wire. This was the men's dormitory, locked down for the second of four daily head counts. It was little more than a warehouse, Spartan but airy, filled with natural light and brightened by a wide band of plum-colored paint, and divided into wings by an open-topped security station manned by five not-unfriendly guards, perplexed by the media's vendetta against them. About 150 detainees lay flat on metal bunkbeds, wordless and expressionless, stacks of humanity on hold. The silence seemed perverse, and whatever eye contact I managed was searing.

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Bob Shacochis