By Luis F. Perez and Georgia East South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 16, 2009
Haiti is saying "No" to the United States. The Caribbean country is blocking the U.S. government from deporting Haitians. The move is clogging immigration detention centers and stalling the return of Haitians ordered out of the country. U.S. immigration authorities are using a diplomatic loophole: pushing Haitians to get their own travel documents, such as passports, so they can be sent home. Haiti took the stand after a series of brutal storms lashed the island last summer and after repeatedly asking the United States for, and being denied, what's known as temporary protected status. The status would allow Haitians in this country illegally to stay and work temporarily. Haitian officials say the country needs to rebuild and can't handle the return of its citizens. The result: Deportations to Haiti have dropped by nearly 89 percent, from an average of 156 in the months before the storms to about 17 a month since October.
"We're not processing travel documents until further notice," said Ralph LaTortue, the Haitian consul general in Miami.Across the country, more than 30,000 Haitians have been ordered to leave, with about 600 of those in detention as of Feb. 9, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Additionally, 243 were under a form of house arrest and being monitored with electronic ankle bracelets. "The lack of travel documents increases the amount of time a removable alien spends in detention and decreases the availability of detention space to house other removable aliens who may be dangerous to the community," said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last summer, four tropical storms devastated Haiti, washing away roads, bridges and crops. Hundreds died, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes. Since then, Haitian President Rene Preval, South Florida elected officials and advocates renewed their request for protected status. A halt to deportations in mid-September gave them hope that their appeal was heard. But immigration officials resumed flights in early December. Two weeks later, then-President George W. Bush's administration denied the request for protected status. "Haiti is still trying to recover," LaTortue said. "It's going to be a very long rebuilding process." He said the consulate will wait until Preval gives the go-ahead to issue travel papers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has made up to 200 requests for them since the storms, he said. Phillippe "Bob" Louis Jeune, president of the Haitian Citizen United Taskforce, said he hears daily from many Haitians facing pressure from immigration officials. "I tell them don't sign anything until we get further word from Washington," Jeune said. Luis F. Perez can be reached at lfperez@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4553.