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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 16:11 GMT
Haiti's desperate deportees
By Andy Kershaw
It was like a scene from the Middle Ages. Hands groped and writhed through the greasy bars. Some snatched at food offered up to the cage. The stench of sweat, excrement and urine was enough to make me heave. But most disturbing was the gloom...
As I stepped in from the fierce afternoon sun, for the first few seconds, I was aware only of some strange circulating globules of light. Then my vision adjusted. The globules were eyeballs.
In one cell, roughly four by four metres, 17 Haitian-born deportees from the USA were clamouring for our attention and any crumbs of hope this rare visit by outsiders might offer.
The wretched inmates of Croix De Bouquets, and hundreds of other deportees from the US in jails and police cells across Haiti, have committed no offence in this country, the poorest in the western hemisphere. They are given no indication of when they'll be released.
The 1996 Anti-Terrorist Act
Since the United States toughened up its immigration laws with the 1996 Anti-Terrorist Act (a response to the bombings at Oklahoma and the World Trade Centre in which 174 people died) any "criminal alien" - a non-US citizen convicted of aggravated felony or a drug offence - is now deported automatically after serving his or her sentence in an American jail.
Before the change in the law, deportation was at the discretion of a judge who took into account factors such as family ties, the seriousness of the offence and whether the "alien" posed any danger to society. Absurdly, the law is also retroactive.
Someone who served their time for, say, possession of a small quantity of marijuana back in the 1970s and has led an exemplary and useful life since is as vulnerable to deportation as mass-murderer emerging from an American prison this week.
Neither does the USA's mandatory deportation policy take into account deportees' familiarity - or lack of it - with the country to which they are returned in shackles. I met many bewildered and frightened men in Haiti's jails who had been taken by their parents to live legitimately in the States as babies.
Their passports may say Haitian but in most cases they have no knowledge of the country, can't speak the Creole language and have no relatives there. (In a Haitian prison if you have no one on the outside to bring you food, you go hungry). And it almost goes without saying that the US does not recognise that a "criminal alien" who has lived all his adult life in States is the product of an American not Haitian criminal culture.
Why, I asked president-elect Jean Bertrand Aristide - a veteran champion of human rights - are the deportees in jail in a country in which they have committed no crime, often in conditions so revolting they might be regarded as a form of torture?
"We will address this issue with the United States and, of course, the solution will emerge from that process where dialogue is so linked to peace."
Some officials say that the deportees simply can't be let loose at the airport because, in a country with 85% unemployment, a homeless, jobless ex-crack dealer from Brooklyn will inevitably resort to crime to survive on the teeming streets of Port au Prince. There is a certain logic to the argument though no official could actually provide me with figures for the number of freed deportees who had re-offended in Haiti.
A more sinister motive may also explain these illegal detentions: nearly all incarcerated deportees I spoke to had been asked for bribes in exchange for freedom, sometimes by police or prison officials. Travis Joliceur, released from the foul National Penetentiary on the day I spoke to him, recalled bogus lawyers coming to the cells. "Guys came up here saying 'Now, give us US$50,000 and I'll get you out in two or three days. They (the deportees) are still in there and they never see the guys again."
Through the persistence of Michelle Karshan, Travis's liberty cost him nothing. He's out but he fears he will never see his three small children again and he's terrified about his future in Haiti. Deportees are viewed as pariahs by other Haitians. Sometimes it seems all of Haiti would like to get out of Haiti and those like Travis are despised for blowing their big chance in the Promised Land. But compared with other deportees Travis can count himself lucky.
The sad story of Claudette Etienne
Claudette Etienne fled the terrors of Baby Doc Duvalier in the early 80s, arriving in Florida in a leaky boat. She was granted residency and in Miami she married and started a family. In 1997 she was put on probation for one year following a domestic argument. In 1999 she was charged with selling a small amount of cocaine. Again, the authorities did not think her offence deserved a custodial sentence. But in February of this year she was unexpectedly hauled into the Krome immigration detention centre in Miami. Seven months later she was bundled on to a plane to Port au Prince.
Michelle Karshan showed me a copy of a letter Claudette had sent to an immigration officer just before her deportation: "Please reconsider my custody situation. I am still with my husband and we are still in love. Our two children are here in Miami and living with him. He works and they attend elementary school. The crimes I did were an argument with my husband and we forgave each other. The drug crime was because I needed the money for my children. I made some bad mistakes and I won't do them again. I'm sorry. Please reconsider my custody. I miss my children terribly."
It's tragic cases like Claudette's which have now spurred a number of US Congressmen to push for reform of the Anti-Terrorist Act.
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Independent film company which produced Abondoned, the Betrayal of America's Immigrants. Also has information on Haiti, politics and culture.
For a summary of a recent interview with Serge Bordenave, co-ordinator of the platform of Haitian Human Rights Organisations, detailsof Cointreau workers' campaign, links to some of the best web sites about Haiti, and much, much more...
Andy Kershaw has returned to Haiti, one of his favourite countries, to present two programmes for World Routes on Radio 3.
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