Haitian Ambassador to Obama: Let My People Stay

February 27, 2009 - 5:17 PM
Ambassador: Review Bush-Era Decisions for Haitians
Miami (AP) - Storm-battered Haiti will continue stalling most deportations of its citizens until the Obama administration decides whether to grant it protected status that will allow Haitians to stay in the U.S. temporarily, the Haitian ambassador said this week.
 
Temporary protected status allows immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters to stay and work in the U.S. for a limited time.
 
Haitian President Rene Preval twice last year formally requested the status that has been granted to a handful of Central American and African countries, but former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff denied those requests in December.
 
"Everybody is saying Haiti is still reeling from those four hurricanes, the food riots of last year, the price of fuel. Haiti had a very, very bad year in 2008," Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph said in a phone interview. "Why should we compound the problems of the country by sending all those deportees at this time if we don't do it for Nicaragua or El Salvador?"
 
Since September, when the Haitian government stopped issuing the travel documents needed to send its residents home, most deportations from the U.S. have stalled. From October through January, just 69 Haitians were returned, compared with 666 in the same four months last year.
 
Joseph wants Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to explain why deportations to Haiti are continuing at all and say whether the country will get protected status.
 
"We want that clear before we decide what we want to do," Joseph said in a telephone interview from Washington.
 
Napolitano will respond to Preval "in due course," Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said Friday.
 
"The department, specifically U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, is in continual discussions with Haiti on the removal of its nationals," Kudwa said.
 
Meanwhile, people like Jean Antenor Paul are in limbo. Paul, a former Haitian policeman who sought asylum in the U.S., has been detained since Jan. 20. Sitting in a north Florida jail, he doesn't know what to tell his family during their weekly visits. His wife is selling the furniture in their Jacksonville home to cover expenses, but should she also sell the house or rent it out? Should she prepare their three young children, all born in the U.S., to move to Haiti?
 
The 40-year-old just cries, his brother said.
 
"Immigration tells us, 'There is nothing we can tell you. We're waiting for the time when we can send him back to Haiti,'" Booz Paul said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "They just told him, 'Just wait until we can send you to Haiti.'"
 
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has abided by the Haitian government's request in September to stop federally managed deportation flights for six months, said ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas.
 
However, individual removals of Haitians with valid passports aboard commercial flights have continued. Travel documents from the Haitian government aren't needed in those cases. The U.S. Coast Guard also has repatriated hundreds of Haitians caught at sea - 624 in January alone, and another 214 aboard an overloaded sail freighter Monday.
 
About 30,000 Haitians nationwide had received final orders of deportation - 95 percent for non-criminal violations - as of early February, but immigration attorneys say many have lived with those orders for years while their appeals chug through the system.
 
About 600 were in detention and another 240 were electronically monitored, according to ICE.
 
Haiti's claim that the deportees are an added burden among so many troubles sets it apart from other countries that have refused to accept removals, experts say.
 
"They're basically saying, 'We don't have the resources,'" said David Leopold, national vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
 
Other countries' refusals have reflected Cold War rivalries, unfinished war business or terrorism concerns.
 
During the Reagan administration, Cuba refused take back thousands of refugees with serious criminal records or mental health issues. Cambodia refused throughout the 1990s, questioning whether deportees were in fact Cambodian citizens. Jordan temporarily stopped accepting deportees for security reasons. Generally, no country accepts stateless Palestinians.
 
If Preval is trying to stave off civil disorder, withholding the documents is the only weapon he has, said Jean-Germain Gros, who specializes in Haitian politics at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. In a country where more than two-thirds of the labor force is unemployed, the mass return of deportees could overwhelm social services. Also, deportees in Haiti are often associated with kidnappings and other crimes.
 
But other countries in the region are accepting burdensome deportees, even those with criminal records who are contributing to political instability, said University of Miami immigration law professor David Abraham.
 
"Guatemala and El Salvador are now facing the return of gang criminals who have brought the major league drug and gang problems back home," Abraham said. "They are really ravaged by these returning gang members, but they haven't refused to take them back.