Haiti — Haitian advocates angrily called on the Obama administration on Monday to stop detaining Haitians with criminal records and halt deportations scheduled next month, saying those flights amount to a death sentence amid a cholera outbreak in the earthquake-ravaged country.
The U.S. government’s abrupt decision to resume deporting Haitians also will deter others without criminal records from applying to temporarily stay and work in the U.S., cutting off a lifeline to quake survivors, they said at a rally in Miami’s Little Haiti.
“Without letting us know they’ll resume deportations to Haiti, at a time when Haiti is living under its gravest crisis, it’s so unfair,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. “It’s supposed to be a progressive government. We’re gravely disappointed by this.”
More than 61,000 Haitians have applied for temporary protected status, which allows illegal immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters to stay and work in the U.S. for 18 months. Only those who were already living in the U.S. illegally when the earthquake struck Jan. 12 are eligible.
More than half the applications have come from Florida, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Officials have said they expected 70,000 to 100,000 Haitians to apply before the Jan. 18 deadline.
Meanwhile, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed Dec. 10 that deportations are set to resume next month for Haitians who have completed their criminal sentences, in co-ordination with Haiti’s government.
Partly driving the U.S. government’s decision was the fact that U.S. law prohibits immigrants from being detained indefinitely, except in extreme circumstances, said ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez. If detainees cannot be returned home, they must be released.
The U.S. anticipates deporting about 700 Haitians with criminal records in 2011, Gonzalez said.
“The Department of State has been working with the Government of Haiti to ensure that the resumption of removals is conducted in a safe, humane manner with minimal disruption to ongoing rebuilding efforts,” she said. “Repatriations to Haiti will be conducted in line with ICE’s priority of removing criminal aliens who pose the greatest threat to public safety.”
At least 351 Haitians have been detained, immigration officials said last week. They had been convicted of crimes such as homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, embezzlement, money laundering and extortion, Gonzalez said.
Still, the advocates said their clients were worried that people with minor infractions such as traffic violations would face deportation.
“People are terrified,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. “We’ve got folks who are eligible for temporary protected status who are afraid to come forward and apply now because they think they’re going to be detained and deported.”
Roughly 31,000 Haitians have orders to leave, but the U.S. temporarily stopped deporting Haitians after the Jan. 12 earthquake, along with granting temporary protected status. Nearly a year later, advocates say conditions in Haiti have not improved enough for deportations to resume.
More than 1 million people remain homeless in Haiti’s capital, and a cholera epidemic has killed more than 2,400 people nationwide since October. The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Haiti after deadly clashes that followed the country’s first round of presidential elections in late November.
Furthermore, Haiti often puts criminal detainees in prison, where cholera can quickly spread unchecked.
“Obama should not be sending anyone to a death sentence in Haiti’s prisons from cholera,” said Steve Forester, immigration policy co-ordinator for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
It was unclear whether the Haitian government was issuing travel documents for the detainees. Neither Haiti’s embassy nor its consul general in Miami immediately replied Monday to phone or email messages from The Associated Press.
The deadline for Haitians to apply for temporary protected status was originally in July, but it was extended after attorneys and advocates said they needed more time to reach immigrants who feared that alerting the U.S. government to their presence would lead to prison or deportation.
Haitians who miss the deadline will not be able to apply again if the U.S. renews temporary protected status for Haiti, as it has done for more than a decade for Central American countries that had to rebuild after a 1998 hurricane.
The U.S. Coast Guard has continued returning Haitian migrants caught at sea. Since Oct. 1, 158 have been returned, and 1,377 were returned in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.