On the afternoon of April 15, an immigration and Customs Enforcement flight landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, carrying 45 “criminal deportees”—non-citizen U.S. residents convicted of various crimes, ranging from immigration violations to homicide. It was the first since ICE deportation flights were suspended on humanitarian grounds in August 2008, after four devastating storms struck Haiti, killing several hundred people, leaving a million homeless, and creating $1 billion worth in damages.
Two buses carried the new arrivals from the airport to the police station, where they were divided, with those convicted of serious crimes in the back and lesser criminals in the front. Only those in the front were permitted to speak with the press. There, emotions were mixed. Some said they looked forward to freedom after months of being jailed. Some said they were glad to be home. One young man, still in his orange jumpsuit pants, said he was eager to get high. Still others were horrified at the idea of being in Haiti.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” said Frank Killick, 24.
He had done time in Florida for escaping arrest after police found him near a stash of cocaine he said belonged to someone else. (Possession charges were later dropped.) He was deported with nothing but a cardboard box packed with fresh T-shirts, family photos, including a few of his four-year-old son, and documents showing that he had been born in the Bahamas and had originally been ordered deported there. The Bahamian government refused him, however, on the grounds that his Haitian parents had never registered him as a Bahamian citizen. By default he was legally Haitian, even though he grew up in Miami.
“It’s my first time touching this soil right here,” Killick said. “I don’t know nothing about Haiti.”
Last year’s suspension of U.S. deportations to Haiti was short-lived. In December, with towns still caked with mud, families still living in tent camps, and agricultural production at a fraction of its usual output, so-called voluntary deportations recommenced—i.e., Haitians in the United States, under threat of arrest, began returning on commercial flights. Then, in April, ICE began forcibly deporting Haitians by the planeload. As of July, more than 450 Haitians had been returned from the United States, 363 of them with criminal convictions, and at least 29,000 more were slated for removal.
An estimated 5,000 Haitians have been deported from the United States since 1996, according to an October 2008 report by the Haiti-based Ecumenical Center for Human Rights (CEDH). The number of deportations was negligible until that year, when Congress passed the Antiterrorism Act of 1996, which dramatically reduced judicial discretion, weakened the power of hardship claims, and required immigration detention, without bail, for potential criminal deportees. Many deportees have had a clean record for several years by the time they’re sent back, and only a small minority committed a violent crime.
Although the vast majority of criminals deported to Haiti lived in the country at some point, most weren’t there for long, and many consider themselves, and are considered by others, far more American than Haitian. Most deportees left Haiti when they were younger than seven years old and lived in the United States for more than 20 years, according to the CEDH report. Some don’t speak the local language, Creole, know nothing about the country, and have only distant family ties there. Those who were granted political asylum in the United States, and who have reason to fear being in Haiti, are provided no protection against deportation. Still more are deported in spite of being physically or mentally ill, and although their medical files are transferred to Haitian authorities, medicine and treatment are rarely provided after they arrive in a country where there is one doctor for every 4,000 inhabitants, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
Once they arrive, many deportees end up detained, once again, by Haitian authorities. Although some are released to family within hours, others are held days, weeks, or even months either because they lack friends or relatives in Haiti who can sign them out or because the Haitian police deem them a threat to public safety (based on often rough translations of their criminal records). They receive no follow-up support or funding to help them resettle, with the exception of an International Organization for Migration (IOM) program that assisted deportees arriving from April 2007 to August 2008. IOM delegates would greet recent arrivals at the police station and offer services, including counseling and occupational training. This year, however, the funding had yet to come through.
Another organization, the Support Center for the Rehabilitation of Haitian Deportees (CARDH), founded by former deportees, also lacked funding, but its members nonetheless continued their outreach to their “brothers,” as they called them. Some CARDH members were particularly moved to reach out to Killick because they had been in similar situations. One had been born in the Bahamas and another in St. Martin, though both had briefly lived in Haiti in their early years before moving with their parents to the United States.
Michelle Karshan, a U.S. citizen with long-standing ties to Haiti, began working with criminal deportees there in 1996, when the U.S. stepped up removals. Together with a group of returnees, she founded Alternative Chance, a nonprofit that, at the time, provided orientation, counseling, and emergency assistance, among other services. Now based in New York, Karshan gives expert testimony in immigration court, while other members of her organization visit detained deportees in Port-au-Prince. Early last year, Alternative Chance employee Alain Charles encountered a 64-year-old grandmother in a holding cell who complained of dysentery.
“She was in detention after deportation for one month, without medication, without drinking water, without medical attention,” Karshan said. Finally, the deportee’s family in the United States arranged for her to be transferred to a hospital, where it took a month to hydrate her. After she was discharged from the hospital, Charles took care of her. She had, it turned out, AIDS, diabetes, cataracts, and, it appeared, psychological problems. “Alain would find her with her bags packed and by the door, and she said she was going to Miami.” Finally, after seven months in Haiti, after suffering a stroke, the woman died. Relatives paid for her body to be shipped home.
“The irony is that only in death was [she] able to reunite with her family in the U.S.,” Karshan said. The woman had lived in the United States for 40 years.
Karshan added that this case is only exceptional in that the woman actually made it to a hospital, although she recalls another case, in 2000, of a deportee who had drunk tap water contaminated with parasites. After four days of being violently ill and begging for medical help, she died of dehydration en route to the hospital.
In every single case, Karshan said, the Haitian government fails to share medical files with the doctors, even though the United States specifically transfers them so deportees can see a doctor. The failure to share medical records is “both indifference to the suffering of a criminal deportee as well as sheer willful, deliberate cruelty,” Karshan said. “The Haitian government, through the Ministry of Interior, and the Haitian police have notice, via the medical file, that the criminal deportee is ill, and yet they detain them and refuse to share the medical file when necessary.”
According to Haitian police spokesman Frantz Lerebours, detainees’ medical well-being is overseen by their relatives, and for those without family, a government commission keeps an eye on them. Haiti’s Interior Ministry, he added, keeps the medical files. (The Interior Ministry, in turn, did not reply to requests for comment.)
Mental illness is also a problem among deportees and can be visible on the streets. Joel Auguste, a deportee from Boston, started an organization in 2000 called Haitian Foundation for Returnees’ Families, which provides, among other services, street outreach. Showing photos of his organization’s work, Auguste pointed to a man with matted hair and blank eyes.
“When he was in the United States, he was on medication, but since he’s been down here he can’t receive no type of assistance,” Auguste said. “So now he becomes mentally crazy. He can’t find his medication from nowhere.” Auguste said his group has little funding beyond the support he receives from family in the United States, but he can at least provide moral support for the worst-off cases. He said, for those who’ve been completely forgotten, just letting them know someone wants to help makes a difference.
“I can’t understand this,” Auguste said. “I mean, there are thousands and thousands of deportees who come here, and the government can’t provide no kind of assistance.”
In September 2006, a judge in Haiti ruled that it was unlawful for police in that country to detain people who had served sentences in another country and had not committed a crime in Haiti. The following year, a U.S. State Department report on human rights in Haiti cited that ruling and complained that Haitian authorities continued to detain returnees in spite of it. Since then, things have improved to a degree. Deportees were once held in the notoriously foul-smelling, overcrowded National Penitentiary for months on end; bribes for release were commonly in the thousands of dollars. CARDH member Barnaby Jacques-Riché compared the Massachusetts prison where he had spent six years with the Haitian prison:
“Heaven! That’s the Holiday Inn, ’cause I tasted the Penitentiary for five days in Haiti. I almost cried. I was like, ‘Lord, please get me up out of here,’ and my mother felt the pain. That’s why she paid the $2,000.” Other CARDH members whose families couldn’t afford the payoff remained in prison for months.
Today, deportees are normally held for shorter periods, and no longer in the National Penitentiary, which is a blessing and a curse. While less intimidating a prospect than prison, the police station holding cells are not meant for long-term detention, so no food, drinking water, or medical assistance is provided. If detainees have money, they pay guards for what they need. Otherwise, they rely on the generosity of cellmates whose families visit daily to bring meals.
And still, no criminal deportee is immediately free upon arrival. Some are released to relatives or friends who sign them out within hours; others, however, are kept in cells for weeks, even months. Upon release, many are instructed to check in with Port-au-Prince police every two weeks—more than a minor inconvenience for those unable to afford transportation from wherever they have found shelter. For those locked up for years or months in the United States, freedom can be an exciting prospect, whatever country it’s in. But liberation in Haiti for anyone previously incarcerated in the United States also means “freedom” from guarantees like food, shelter, clean water, health care, and, in some cases, employment. Frank Killick’s experiences illustrate this well.
On April 15, CARDH members signed Killick out, saving him from another night in jail. They brought him to the home of the organization’s president but made clear to him that they couldn’t afford to keep him there. One member called around to local NGOs, asking for donations of food and cooking supplies, and others helped Killick get in touch with a half-brother in the northern town of Gonaïves.
Frank and his brother Lynri Killick had never met, but they had spoken on the phone when Lynri called the United States to ask for money. Gonaïves had been devastated by the 2008 storms, and Lynri, a subsistence farmer, had lost everything. When he learned his brother had been deported, Lynri, with a heavy heart, asked neighbors to lend him about $40 for bus fare to go to Port-au-Prince and pick him up.
“I don’t have work,” Lynri said when he arrived at the CARDH house. “I don’t have anything. For me to come here, I had to get people to look for money for me. It really hurts me that my brother is here, but I’m obliged to come anyway. If my brother goes back [to the United States], maybe he can help me. But if we both stay here, we have no hope.”
Frank said he was alarmed to meet his older brother, emaciated and complaining of intestinal and respiratory problems. “Now that I’m here, I see why he’s always calling me, telling me he needs stuff, ’cause he really does need it.”
Asked if he thinks his brother can help him, Frank said, “He needs to help himself, and I need help. Only God can help both of us right now. I’m trying to be there for my son, but my son’s in the United States. I don’t know no way that I can help him. I want to be close to him, but there’s no way that can happen. All I can do is pray to God.”
That afternoon, IOM dropped off boxes of food, but CARDH members told Killick it wasn’t enough. He would have to return to Gonaïves with his brother.
Months later, Frank is still living with Lynri, along with Lynri’s mother and adolescent brother, in Gonaïves, where the effects of last year’s storms are still visible: Some homes remain underwater, downtown businesses are shuttered, and the population has been diminished by sheer lack of opportunity.
Killick complains of the pervasive dust from the mud, left by the floods and baked in the sun. “There ain’t nothing for me here,” he said by phone in July. “Nothing.” His only hope is that his deportation order will somehow be reversed—a virtually unheard-of occurrence.
Life for deportees doesn’t get easier as time passes. “It’s not just the first few months,” Karshan said. “Year three is when it really hits them.” Some turn to drugs or alcohol, some resort to crime, and some sink into debilitating depression. Not only are Haitian deportees trapped in an almost definitively impossible country, away from friends, family, and their past lives; but they are also burdened by stigma.
Deportees are often easy to identify, with their American accents, looks, and behavior, as well as their lack of local history and contacts. And that can be bad news.
Everybody assumes deportees are criminals, Jacques-Riché said. And that’s not all. “The way they see it, you had a chance to go to the Promised Land called the United States, and you messed up,” he said. “They wanted to go, and they didn’t have the chance, and they’re like, ‘We’re not going to pay the price with you. You gonna pay the price by yourself.’ ”
Though many deportees have distant relatives they can stay with upon arrival, those relatives are often embarrassed by them and eventually kick them out. What’s more, for some, the worst crime committed by a criminal deportee is that he didn’t send money back when he was in the States.
Too often, deportees are embraced by the wrong people: Haitian gangsters. They welcome deportees with open arms, even if they’re not hardened criminals, Jacques-Riché said. “You could be like, ‘I did six years for tax evasion,’ and they’d be like, ‘No, you a thug. I give you the respect!’ ”
Although there’s no evidence that deportations have led to increased crime in Haiti, deportees acknowledge that the incentive is there, and the Haitian public tends to expect the worst from them. Deportee associations are working to combat the stigma through community service, like volunteering at soup kitchens and coordinating basketball tournaments with local youth.
Meanwhile, in addition to jail visits and advocacy, Alternative Chance works to help deported parents connect with their children in the United States. Karshan’s dream is to set up a camp that would allow children to visit their deported parents in Haiti. While working through the logistical and financial hurdles of such a task, she is encouraging deportees to connect with their children through family websites, where they can read books together and share photos and report cards.
In addition to street outreach, Auguste’s group pushes for the release of deportees wrongly arrested in Haiti, as well as providing food, clothing, shelter, drug and alcohol abuse support groups, psychological counseling, and employment assistance. These and other deportee associations meet weekly with officials from IOM and the Haitian government to discuss ways to improve how deportees are received in Haiti. The will is there, at least in the nonprofit sector, but the general lack of funding is crippling.
Daniel Kanstroom, an attorney who heads the International Human Rights Program at Boston College Law School, has long worked at the front end of the deportation issue, representing non-citizens fighting to remain in the United States—a job, he says, that has grown more challenging over the years.
“The law has gotten much, much more harsh than it used to be,” Kanstroom said. “For many deportees now there really is no defense. There’s very little you can do. If a person has committed often a very minor crime, they’re going to be deported.”
He attributes this to the 1996 anti-terrorism law but also to a general hardening of policy and practice over the years. Kanstroom doubts this trend will be reversed either by the courts or by Congress (though he and his students have been doing what they can on this end). That’s why, in 2006, he launched the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project, which aims to represent individuals and their families after removal.
Kanstroom said he is essentially conceptualizing an entirely new area of law—a huge, money-losing challenge. But he hopes that with shifts in public sentiment over Guantánamo and other overseas detention centers, people in the United States are beginning to understand a human rights responsibility that extends beyond borders. That’s his dream, anyway: To drive home the idea that under human rights law, “It’s out of our jurisdiction” cannot be an excuse for inaction.
“It’s not the nation-state in which the person is living that determines whether they have rights,” Kastroom said. “It’s their dignity as a human being.”
Alternative Chance’s Michelle Karshan, asked what she would change about the U.S. deportation system if it were just one thing, said: “They need to restore judicial discretion to the judges.” That is, judges should be able to examine the entirety of a case before deciding whether someone should be deported.
Asked the same question, Kanstroom squirmed, thinking of a plethora of issues, but essentially agreed with Karshan.
“It would be to restore the possibility of discretionary relief. And mercy.”
Amy Bracken is a Boston-based freelance journalist. She has worked for the Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, Inter Press Service, The Haitian Times, PRI’s The World, and Reuters.