The United States can represent many things to the world's impoverished, but in late September 1992, this country meant one very basic thing to Omila Foufoune Cesaire: safety. She was in a panic to escape the murderous gangs and lethally berserk military that prowled the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, killing her neighbors and looting their homes in the bloody aftermath of the coup that ousted democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.
She recalls the night she heard a marauding posse descend on Avenue Jean Claude, in the neighborhood known as Carrefour, sending her scurrying out her apartment's rear door and into the darkness. She says her street was enthusiastically pro-Aristide, and Cesaire herself belonged to a local community group affiliated with the president's political party. "They killed Yves, Harold, and Gogol," remembers Cesaire, who was five months pregnant at the time. "Yves was my neighbor. They smashed the house of Rosemarie. And they smashed my house. They went in and took everything, all the sacks of rice and beans." Her meager livelihood -- selling food on the street -- was over. She hid in an anonymous downtown hotel, her mother's blunt advice echoing in her ears: Don't step outside -- you never know who might see you.
Cesaire holed up for 30 days while negotiating to acquire a fraudulent passport with a coveted visa to the U.S. (a photo was switched out of a valid passport and hers pasted in its place), paid for with money sent by her first husband, who was already living in South Florida. Then she bought a plane ticket to Miami.
At Miami International Airport, immigration officials took one look at her passport and confronted her. She gave her real name and appealed for asylum. While her asylum claim slowly worked its way through the federal bureaucracy, she received a work permit. Over the years she has labored at minimum-wage jobs in a Hialeah shoe factory, in a laundromat, and as a hotel chambermaid. She's been living here thirteen years, raising two U.S.-born children. Last year she and her new husband bought a two-bedroom home in North Miami.
In 1998 Congress passed the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA), granting residency status to Haitians known to have arrived prior to 1996. It was essentially an amnesty for those who fled Haiti during the dictatorships of the Eighties and the coup of 1991, whether they received asylum or not. (HRIFA is in fact a response to notoriously low asylum approval rates for Haitians.) Eventually Cesaire was denied her bid for asylum, so she applied for residency under HRIFA.
That is when she learned the grim Catch-22 of her situation. The amnesty act did not apply to her because she used a false document to enter the country. Immigration officials ordered her deportation to Haiti.
Cesaire's story is hardly unique. Haitians desperate to reach the U.S. by air commonly used fake passports. In fact an estimated 2000 to 3000 people are in her predicament -- long-term, hard-working, law-abiding residents who are now facing deportation to a highly unstable country.
A survivalist imperative drove them to commit a transgression that today elicits little sympathy in the U.S. But to flee by water, the only other option, was far too dangerous. The U.S. Coast Guard maintained a tight blockade to intercept boaters, only to summarily return them dockside in Haiti (without so much as an interview after a 1992 policy change) to the helmeted and homicidal military they'd just fled. "The more real and bona fide the threat of repression, the more suicidal it would have been for the person to flee by boat," says Steven Forester, senior policy advocate for Haitian Women of Miami, who is waging a campaign to provide protection to the airplane people.
It was widely understood that, if you had the financial means, it was far safer to come dekolaj, the Kreyol term for using fake documents to fly here. The bogus passports were not meant to fool anyone on the U.S. side; they were far too crude. They were intended only to foil the guards at the Port-au-Prince airport, "since dictators don't give travel papers to those they want to repress," Forester notes.
The framers of HRIFA, most notably former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former Congresswoman Carrie Meek, acknowledge it was an oversight not to cover the plane people. "I was unaware there was a difference in treatment," Graham says today. "If you came in with no documents, as many of those did who came by boat, then you were on track for consideration as a refugee. If you came in with false documents, you were excluded. And the airplane people frequently were in the greatest fear for their lives. I don't think anybody was aware of this disparity at the time."
One of the reasons for the lapse, according to Forester, was that much of the bill's language was copied directly from earlier legislation intended for Nicaraguans fleeing political violence in their country. But because those refugees illegally crossed a land border, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act didn't concern itself with the use of fake documents.
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.
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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."