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#3331: Haitian girl finds S. Florida haven (fwd)


Published Saturday, April 22, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Case inspires U.S. residency bill
 Haitian girl finds S. Florida haven

 Sophonie Telcy's mother had one dying wish: that her 6-year-old
daughter grow up safe from the poverty and political turmoil that has
 overshadowed life in Haiti for decades. The little girl is now in the
care of family friends in a suburb of West Palm Beach. Although her
father in Haiti is not trying to get her back, she still finds herself
in an Elian Gonzalez-like legal limbo -- lacking legal protection
against deportation -- because her foster family doesn't have formal
custody. U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, is using Sophonie's case
as an example of what he calls the federal government's inconsistent
approach to the problem of unaccompanied minors who arrive in the United
States. He has sponsored a bill that would grant Sophonie permanent
residency.  Knowing that she was terminally ill, Sophonie's mother Sana
Romelus scraped up enough money from her factory job in Haiti to bring
her daughter to Florida just over one year ago. Once on stable ground,
she came up with a survival plan: Sophonie would remain in the care of
an old schoolmate whom she ran into during a chance encounter at
 a meat market in Lake Park. Romelus hadn't seen classmate Henry Smith
in years -- but she knew he and his family were Sophonie's best hope for
a future. Back in Haiti, as an orphan, the little girl would be destined
to a harsh existence on the streets.


 Two weeks after bumping into her old pal, Romelus came knocking at
Smith's door last March with Sophonie in tow. In her arms, the mother
carried her daughter's best white dress. ``She said, `Keep her for me,'
'' recalled Smith's wife, Janine Bolivar. ``She knew she was sick. She
knew she wouldn't be able to care for Sophonie. She knew [Henry] would
take care of her like his own child.'' The couple and their three little
girls are now the closest thing Sophonie has to family. The girl's
mother returned to Haiti, where she died. Her father, who remains on the
island, has not requested her return. Hastings said he could easily get
a crowd of 200 Haitian Americans to stage a boisterous protest outside
the girl's Lake Park home. But he has decided to spare ``putting a
lamp'' on the child. Maria Elena Garcia, a spokeswoman for the
Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami, said Sophonie does not
face imminent deportation. She said adoption by the family here would be
the first step toward obtaining permanent residency for the little girl.
 Garcia said the child would have to live in the same home in the United
States for two years before being eligible for adoption. Bolivar said
she did not know adoption was an option. Nonetheless, Hastings has
decided to tackle what he believes is a double standard in U.S.
immigration policy toward unaccompanied minors. Currently, the attorney
general has discretion to consider each case individually, resulting in
what he calls ``a hodgepodge, ad-hoc approach to an extremely
 complicated problem'' where powerful immigrant groups, such as the
Cuban exile community of Miami, can sway the legal process.


 After months of legal wrangling and consultations, Attorney General
Janet Reno has decided to remove Elian from the home of his Miami
relatives and has instructed federal agents to determine when the best
time for the transfer would be. Hastings is preparing legislation that
would revamp how such cases are handled. As a model, the congressman
said he will be looking to the Canadian justice system, which refers
immigration claims involving minors to a 30-member ``council of
advisors'' -- a panel of independent education, social service, health
 and legal experts. ``The attorney general has the final say in this
country. That is not right,'' Hastings said. ``There needs to be someone
there who has the final voice for the children.'' Cheryl Little,
director of the Immigrant Advocacy Center, said the number of children
fleeing to this country from around the world is growing ``at an
alarming rate'' -- and most do not get the treatment afforded Elian.


 ``Last year, there were over 5,600 unaccompanied minors in INS
custody,'' Little said. ``Many agreed to voluntary departure because
they didn't have an attorney.'' Political unrest and human rights abuses
-- including forced child labor, sexual slavery and child soldier cases
-- are largely to blame for the mass exodus, she said. ``It is estimated
that over half of the world's refugees are children,'' Little said.
 ``There are lots of Sophonies. These are children without a voice,
without a face. Parents are facilitating their children's departures
because they are trying to save their lives.'' As a result, immigration
authorities ``are increasingly using juvenile detention facilities where
conditions are horrible'' to house minors, added Little, who this
 month wrote to Reno to express her concern about the treatment of
 unaccompanied minors. Sophonie did not end up in a detention center.
Instead, she spends her days in the company of her new family and
attends Lake Park Elementary, where she is blazing her way through first
grade. She can write and count numbers.


 Sophonie still gets the blues when she thinks of her mother, breaking
into tears, but her caregivers say she bounces quickly out of the spells
during playful jaunts with her new siblings. Bolivar, Sophonie's
surrogate mom, said she and her husband would like to keep the little
girl as part of their family -- and to extend to her all the benefits of
life in this country. But the girl's undocumented status does not
qualify her for government-funded after-school programs and other social
services. ``The only problem I have is that if I take her to the
hospital, I have to pay for her because she doesn't have any papers,''
said Bolivar, 28. Garcia, the INS spokeswoman, said the family would
need to adopt Sophonie by her 16th birthday to legalize her immigration
status. In the meantime, the INS has no plans to send federal agents to
come after the girl, she said. ``If they are going to adopt the child,
then I recommend that they start that process immediately,'' Garcia
said. ``Certainly, the INS has never gone to schools to check on the
status of children. It would be up to the school whether to decide
 if they want to take in a child that really has no legal basis in this