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In this feature story from Investigative News Network member group, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, reporter Jacob Kushner uncovers how the Obama administration continues to deport Haitians despite a stay on deportations after the January 2010 earthquake there — and with the knowledge that many of the deportees will be illegally jailed and risk cholera exposure upon arrival.
By Jacob Kushner
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The United States has deported more than 250 Haitians since January knowing that one in two will be jailed without charges in facilities so filthy they pose life-threatening health risks.
An investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found that the Obama administration has not followed its own policy of seeking alternatives to deportation when there are serious medical and humanitarian concerns.
“What’s distinct about the situation in Haiti is that, unlike in other countries, people are immediately jailed, and the conditions in Haitian jails are condemned universally for violating human rights,” said Rebecca Sharpless of the University of Miami Law School Immigration Clinic, which helps immigrants appeal deportation orders.
The health risks for incarcerated deportees have increased significantly since October 2010, when a cholera outbreak began that has infected about 470,000 people and killed more than 6,500, including some prisoners.
International health experts say deportees in Haiti’s jails are at risk of contracting cholera, which can spread rapidly in overcrowded cells that lack clean water, soap and waste disposal. Once exposed to cholera, victims can die in less than 24 hours.
In January, 34-year-old deportee Wildrick Guerrier, whose Florida criminal record included convictions for battery and possession of a firearm, died from what doctors described as cholera-like symptoms two days after being released from the holding cell where he became ill –one of the same cells where deportees are incarcerated today.
Haitian authorities said they place about half of all deportees in jails to monitor what they term “serious criminals” — a largely arbitrary determination. These detentions, which have lasted as long as 11 days, violate Haitian law and United Nations treaties when deportees have not been charged with crimes in Haiti.
One day after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake destroyed much of Haiti’s capital, the U.S. government suspended deportations. Since then, the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have lobbied countries to halt deportations due to worsening conditions in Haiti.
“The crisis has not gone away,” said Michel Forst, the U.N. independent expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti. “The most important help the international community can give to Haiti is to suspend the forced return of Haitians.”
Still, the Department of Homeland Security resumed deportations to Haiti on Jan. 20 — the very same day the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning urging Americans to avoid Haiti due to health risks and lawlessness.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said deportations to Haiti resumed because a U.S. Supreme Court decision required detainees to be released after 180 days. That requirement, they said, would have placed “some detained Haitian nationals with significant criminal records into U.S. communities, which in turn poses a significant threat to the American public.”
Barbara Gonzalez, ICE’s press secretary, said in an email that the agency would “prioritize those who pose the greatest threat to the community.”
But FCIR found at least three deportees arriving in August and September were convicted of non-violent drug offenses, and three-quarters of all Haitian deportees in recent years had no criminal convictions at all, according to immigration records.
“The hypocrisy is stunning,” Sharpless said. “U.S. officials have known for a long time that it’s dangerous to send people back to jail in Haiti. They also knew that the cholera outbreak raised the stakes even higher because cholera and Haitian jails are a deadly combination. Yet they decided to resume deportations anyway.”
Detention — an unexpected homecoming
On the morning of Aug. 9, Franco Coby, a 24-year-old who was born in Haiti but grew up in Fort Myers, Fla., stepped off a plane in Port-au-Prince. He served nearly two years in a Florida prison for selling cocaine to a police informant, followed by four months in an immigration detention center. Haitian police loaded the 43 deportees on two white buses.
“To me, I’m in a foreign country even though it’s my birthplace,” said Frantz Fils-Aime, 29, a deportee from New York City who was convicted in 2008 of selling cocaine.
Florence Elie, the head of Haiti’s Citizen Protection Ministry, entered one of the buses and explained that deportees must report weekly as part of an 18-month probation — although no Haitian law allows for such preemptive supervision. She also addressed a rumor that circulated among the deportees: Some will be briefly put in “administrative retention,” meaning jail.
The next morning, Coby was at the Commissariat Petionville, a jail across the street from one of Haiti’s 900 post-earthquake displacement camps.
Haitian police placed Coby in one of the jail’s two cramped 20-by-10-foot cells, along with Filis-Aime, another New Yorker and deportees from Georgia and Michigan. Over the next seven days, they shared the cell with two to 15 others. At times, there wasn’t enough space for everyone to sleep on the bare concrete. A strong odor of feces wafted from the broken toilet in the back.
“I got bumps growing all over my skin, man. I don’t know if I’m allergic to something or what,” Coby said, after his first night in jail. “I been feeling sick; my stomach is tearing me up. Today I ate some rice, and it ran straight through me.”
Dr. John May, president of Health Through Walls, a North Miami nonprofit that works to improve jail conditions in foreign nations, travels frequently to Haiti. He visited the facility where Coby and the other deportees were held four weeks after their release.
“This is what we see everywhere,” May said. “Tuberculosis would thrive in this environment, certainly skin conditions like scabies, which we see often. And most seriously and concerning in Haiti recently is cholera, and it would just take one person with cholera here and it would quickly spread to the others.”
Cholera is spread primarily through feces and can result in severe vomiting and diarrhea. “Any situation that doesn’t have a lot of good hygiene is a great setting for the spread of cholera, which is what we have here,” May said.
When asked if such conditions pose life-threatening health risks, Chairman of Haiti’s Commission in Charge of Deportees Pierre Wilner Casseus said only that deportees who appear ill are released immediately.
Medical care denied
Sometimes jailhouse conditions in Haiti complicate existing medical problems, as they did for Jeff Dorne, a longtime Boston resident diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Dorne served six years in prison for a 2003 rape conviction in New Jersey.
Haitian authorities immediately imprisoned him — without charge — in the same cell where Coby later would be held. Dorne’s illness required him to take four medications daily, so U.S. immigration officers sent a one-month supply of the prescriptions to Haiti’s judicial police. But jails in Haiti do not have medical personnel and Haitian police are not trained in basic medical care.
On Dorne’s first night in the Petionville jail, the municipal police gave him the medication, and then, according to Dorne, held onto — or lost — the remaining pills.
“The prescription said every night. So Saturday night I asked the chief officer, ‘Can you get my medication for me?’ ” Dorne said. “They told me they can’t find it. Every day I asked them for it. After two, three days, I stopped asking.”
During his next few days in jail, Dorne said some of the symptoms that had subsided after he began psychiatric treatment in the New Jersey prison returned.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “My hands started shaking.”
Dr. John May said mentally ill inmates face grave risks because they are often unable to negotiate for themselves.
“A person who requires antipsychotic medications … could rapidly deteriorate without having them,” May said.
The police officer in charge of that jail said he was not familiar with Dorne’s case.
An April 1 ICE memorandum explaining the decision to resume deportations said alternatives would be considered in cases where medical and humanitarian concerns exist. Yet, as in Dorne’s case, Haitians with documented medical problems continue to be deported from the United States.
Immigration attorneys in the United States are fighting deportations of individual Haitians under the 1984 U.N. Convention Against Torture, which forbids governments from deporting people to countries where they will undergo “severe pain or suffering.” In April, a mentally ill Haitian immigrant in Miami had his deportation deferred on the grounds that the conditions in a Haitian jail could meet that standard in his case.
Haiti’s Commission in Charge of Deportees includes representatives from four government ministries and the independent Office of Citizen Protection. Once the deportees arrive in Haiti and are transferred to the judicial police holding station, commission members decide who will go free — and who will be incarcerated.
The process is largely ad hoc. No written policy exists, and there is little consensus among members of the deportee commission about the primary purpose of the detentions.
Aramick Louis, secretary of state for public security, said detentions are meant for deportees’ protection during the “vulnerable” transition to Haiti.
Frederic Leconte, the commissioner of Haiti’s judicial police, said the detentions allow the state time to understand each individual’s situation — even though the U.S. government provides detailed files on each deportee two weeks prior to arrival, and FCIR was unable to document any instances in which detained deportees were interviewed or even observed directly by officials.
Haitian law does not allow someone to be jailed based on the possibility he may commit a crime in the future.
“This is what I fought against,” said Privat Precil, the director general of Haiti’s Ministry of Justice from 2002 to 2004. “It is just a police policy that is not legal under Haitian law.”
Reporter Jacob Kushner produced this story for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. His research was supported in part by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Investigative News Network.
The CCIR is a member group of the Investigative News Network.