[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
#3041: Haitian Families in U.S. Face a Tough Choice (fwd)
Haitian Families in U.S. Face a Tough Choice
March 29, 2000 by RICK BRAGG NY TIMES
MIAMI, March 28 -- The choice lies in Esta Pierre's mind like a sliver
of glass. Ms. Pierre used a doctored passport to leave Haiti and enter
the United States on Jan. 8, 1993, after her boyfriend was dragged from
their house in Port-au-Prince by agents of the Haitian dictatorship.
He disappeared, believed to have been one of thousands killed there
in the early 1990's, she said. In Florida, she built a solid life on
shaky ground. She scrubbed hotel room toilets and bathed people in
nursing homes to earn a living. She married a Haitian immigrant and made
payments on a little house in southwest Florida. They had two children,
Jean, now 6, and Gaelle, 21 months. "I have never been a problem," she
said last week in the office of her immigration lawyer, using the hem of
her dress to mop up the tears that flowed down her face. She has been
told she cannot be an American, like her children. To keep them, she
has to take them to a place she still sees in nightmares. If she were
Cuban or Nicaraguan,though, she could have received amnesty. Ms. Pierre
has received a deportation order from the Immigration and Naturalization
Service and could be sent back at any time, her Miami lawyer said. Her
husband, who also entered the country on a fake passport, has also been
ordered back. But their children, born here, are citizens by birthright,
and cannot be deported. So, Ms.Pierre, like thousands of other Haitian
mothers and fathers in this country, must someday choose. Does she
remove her children from school and doctors and the clean, safe life she
has been able to shape here in Florida, and take them to the poorest
nation in the Western Hemisphere, a place of mass graves and open sewage
and a blood-stained history of political repression? Or does she leave
them, to save them? "I'm going crazy," Ms. Pierre said. As the whole
country and much of the world focuses on one Cuban boy, Elián González,
and an international custody battle that has drawn attention from
Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton, some 3,000 Haitians
in the United States face the prospect of leaving their children if
they are deported, convinced the children would have a better life here,
even as virtual orphans, than in Haiti,said experts on Caribbean
immigration. "These people are stuck," said Elwin Griffith, a law
professor and the director of the Caribbean Law Institute at Florida
State University. "And they can't do a thing about it." Immigration laws
do not recognize children who are United States citizens as the
overriding argument against the deportation of their parents, he said.
In 1997, Congress granted amnesty to Cubans and Nicaraguans who
came to the United States before December 1995, even if they had
entered the country illegally, said Cheryl Little, the executive
director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. While they, too,
faced political turmoil at home, Haitians were excluded from that
legislation. A year later, when Congress passed a similar law for
Haitians, it included tighter restrictions and failed to include
protections for those who arrived with a fake passport, as if that was
more criminal than crawling over a fence at a border crossing or
floating on a raft,immigration lawyers said. In Miami last week, a
federal judge gave 12 days of attention to the question of parental
rights in the Elián case, and ultimately concluded that the boy's father
in Cuba had already been separated from his son for too long. Two days
later, Justice Department officials introduced a new set of regulations
that relaxed some requirements for applications for citizenship, but did
not alter its stand on people like Ms. Pierre,people who entered on
phony passports and have no qualifying relative -- a spouse or parent --
who already has citizenship or a residency card. "As it obsesses on the
plight of one boy, the government is about to destroy the families of
thousands of American boys and girls," said Steve Forester, an
immigration lawyer in Miami who has been agitating for 20 years to
change what advocates see as a double standard for Haitian refugees.
"To separate them from their parents destroys their lives," Mr.
Forester said, "but to send them to Haiti also destroys their lives.
That steals their future." Haitians are not the only immigrants who face
this dilemma. But the proximity of the United States to their homeland,
and cruelty of the circumstances there make their situation more common.
There are an estimated 10,000 Haitians in the United States like Ms.
Pierre, people who face deportation. About 3,000 of those have one
or more children who were born here, immigration experts said. "Being a
parent of a United States citizen is not sufficient for a waiver when
the individual has entered the United States with fraudulent documents,"
said Dan Kane, a spokesman for the immigration service. "I.N.S. cannot
exercise authority that Congress has not given it."David Abraham, a
professor of immigration law at the University of Miami, said the
parents and children are placed in an impossible situation, but warned
that giving legal residency to the parents could set a bad precedent.
Any illegal immigrant who wanted a green card could just have a
child, he said. "It would lead to backlash" in public opinion, he said.
But immigration experts say that for decades, Haitians have been met
with uneven application of laws that that can benefit immigrants from
countries whose governments have been at odds with the United States.
The immigration service, which has deported more than 900 Haitians
in the last two years, is planning no en masse return of Haitians. In
fact, immigration lawyers said, because of huge backlogs, the agency
will take years to investigate, identify and consider the appeals filed
by people like Ms. Pierre. It has taken seven years to process her
case.But, in one way, that only makes her choice more difficult. Her two
children are not immigrants in a new culture. They are Haitians by
ancestry only. They wear Michael Jordan jerseys and Pooh pajamas.
When she asks Jean a question in Creole, he answers in English.Jean, who
is making good grades in school in Immokalee, where they now live, has
no accent. Her baby daughter is not just healthy,she is fat. She has a
picture in her mind of children with distended bellies who stand naked
in rainwater ditches tainted with human sewage, and she sees them drink
from it -- snapshots of home. Here, on Sunday, she dresses her children
in gleaming white."What am I going to do with them in Haiti?" she said.
Ms. Pierre will make her choice only when she absolutely must. A stay
that has prevented her deportation could evaporate at any time.
"How will they live?" Ms. Pierre said. "Children are always sick in
Haiti." The same questions haunt Mary France, a 21-year-old sales clerk
who lives in Fort Lauderdale. She and her husband are under a
deportation order, for the same reason as Ms. Pierre. They came
here on an altered passport in 1995. They have a 5-year-old boy,
Ronald."No way can I take him with me," Ms. France said, also speaking
in the office of her Miami lawyer."No way can I leave him here. If I
go, I don't have a job,I don't have money. He can't even go to
school." She looks across the room at her son, and imagines him in
the place she fled. She began to shake her head, hard. "Oh, God," she
said. She will decide at the last minute, too. Like Ms. Pierre, she does
not have anybody here to look after her child. To leave them means
placing them in state care. In the anguish of Ms. Pierre and Ms. France,
Cinette Dorias sees her future. Ms. Dorias, who lives in Delray Beach
with her husband, Rigaud Moise, and three children, also faces
deportation. But her case, like her husband's, is not so far along in
the process. Only one of their children, Rickerson, 5, is a United
States citizen. She has not decided, but believes she is incapable of
splitting up her family and leaving him. "I have been here 10 years,"
Ms. Dorias said. "I work, in a nursing home and in home care, and I pay
my taxes and bills. We have bought a house -- the back yard is nice --
and save our money. If I was not Haitian, if I was your sister, would
they still send me home?" Michael D. Ray, an immigration lawyer and
president of the South Florida chapter of the Immigration Lawyers
Association, said the Haitian mothers face more than poverty, filth and
hardship in Haiti,as will the children if they take them back. One of
the first things immigration lawyers try to prove is that their clients
are political refugees and try to get them asylum, lawyers said, but
that is difficult to prove. His client, Ms. Pierre, is a political
refugee, Mr. Ray said, but has not been granted asylum. In Haiti, she
and her boyfriend, Samuel Congas, were once supporters of Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, the elected president who was ousted in a bloody coup in
October of 1991 and then returned, after years of bloodshed in Haiti, in
a United States occupation in 1994. Their home, in Port-au-Prince, had a
picture of Aristide painted on a wall. In August 1992, opponents of Mr.
Aristide arrived armed with pistols and machetes and dragged Mr. Congas
out into the night. For weeks, she said, she searched for him, and even
went to Titanyen, an infamous place north of the city where countless
dead,murdered over decades of despotic rule, are buried. The rain and
the rooting pigs sometimes uncover the dead there, but she did not find
him. She had fled their house and hid with family and, when she thought
it was safe, used a passport with a new name spliced over her own to
escape the country. As soon as she arrived in Miami, she told
immigration officials her real name, believing they would understand.
"It was a life or death matter," said Mr. Ray. If Ms. Pierre returns, he
said, she goes back within reach of the people who chased her away.
"I close my eyes at night," she said, "and the men come into my
house again." Ms. Dorias's husband, Mr. Moise, was a soldier who refused
to shoot into a crowd of Aristide supporters at a pro-democracy
demonstration in August 1990. He was arrested and served five months in
prison, then got his family out by plane. "I was marked," he said.
His son, Rickerson, believes violence happens only on television. In
Miami, as Haitian-Americans are bombarded with news of Elián González,
they are not sure public opinion has ever been on their side. "A child
should remain with its parents," said Micheline Ducena, the executive
director of the Haitian Organization of Women in Miami,repeating the
United States government's legal justification for reuniting Elián and
his father. "But if Elián were Haitian," she said, "he would have been
sent back a long time ago." Ms. Pierre dreads the day when immigration
officials order her to the Miami airport. She is allowed to take with
her just one bag of 44 pounds or less. She has not decided if she will
have to bring baby clothes.