Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haitians insist on right to asylum in U.S.

Haitians insist on right to asylum in U.S.
Shelia M. Poole, Teresa Borden Staff
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Gabrielle Vincent still shudders when she recalls the morning more than a year ago when U.S. immigration officials came for her husband, Jose. He had fled his native Haiti by boat in 1996 after his political activities made him a target. Vincent said her husband sought and was denied asylum.

In June, after eight months in detention, Jose was sent back to Haiti, where he complains he is a virtual prisoner in Cap-Haitien.

“They deported my husband back in the middle of turmoil,” said Gabrielle, a naturalized U.S. citizen who lives with the couple’s two children in Lithonia. “People leave home in the morning and don’t know if they will return alive. That is my fear.”

Thousands of Haitians in the United States share Vincent’s fear as they have watched their homeland slide into chaos after the 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The chaos continued this week as the country held national elections.

Attorneys handling Haitian asylum cases across the nation say the situation in Haiti merits granting them special permission to stay in the United States under temporary protected status, a program created in 1990. The executive branch grants the status, when it deems necessary, to people from countries paralyzed by natural disasters or ongoing armed conflict. To date, it has not granted it to Haitians.

Tom Griffin, a Philadelphia attorney, has authored a sample motion to stop Haitian deportations until the U.S. grants them TPS. He wants attorneys to use it in as many Haitians’ cases as possible. It’s unclear how many have been filed.

“We’re trying to save people from going back into the fire,” Griffin said. “Our government thinks free and fair elections means Haiti is turning a corner from catastrophe to an atmosphere of peace and justice. But there are no indications that the elections will be free and fair.”

The motions come as debate over illegal immigration heats up in Georgia and across the country.

The United States has granted temporary protected status to Salvadorans, Bosnians, Somalis, and many others who fled because of civil strife at home. So why not Haitians, the lawyers ask. They say that in recent years Haiti has suffered a coup and a natural disaster, two reasons used in the past to grant the status.

U.S. treatment of Haitians has always been a volatile issue. Many like Frantz Bourget, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Port-Au-Prince, believe Haiti fares worse because it is poor and black.

“So far they’ve been very consistent in anything that has to do with Haitians,” said the East Point accountant and treasurer of the Haitian American Task Force, formed last June to help Haitians here and abroad. “It appears to be racist and political.”

A matter of criteria

Bourget said his organization hopes to join groups in cities with large Haitian communities, such as Miami, New York and Philadelphia, to press for temporary protected status. “If you send those folks back to Haiti right now the way Haiti is, you’re sending them to die,” he said.

But administration officials see things differently.

“At this time we do not believe that Haiti fulfills the narrow criteria established by Congress to qualify for TPS,” said Dan Kane, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. “We are continuing to monitor the situation on the ground. It’s still open.”

The “narrow criteria,” in the case of natural disasters, mean a country’s president has to ask for the status, and the entire country has to be brought to a standstill, Kane said.

Griffin said as many as 40,000 Haitians could immediately benefit from TPS, which allows recipients to live and work in the United States for up to 18 months at a time. The government re-evaluates the situation at home and decides whether to renew or cancel the status.

“If they’re going to grant TPS to El Salvador and Liberia and Montserrat, Haiti clearly fits the same criteria,” said Charles Kuck, who is handling the case of Nixon Printemps, a Haitian in Atlanta facing possible deportation. “If [the status] is not granted, there’s only one reason it’s not granted, and that’s politics.”

A brother in fear

Printemps, a former security guard in Port-Au-Prince, left Haiti four years ago fearing retaliation from a presidential guard sent briefly to prison for shooting and killing Printemps’ brother.

“My father don’t live in his house no more because he’s afraid the police officer will go after him,” Printemps said. “The guard killed my brother, and I was fighting for justice.”

But getting temporary protected status is difficult. Only 14 countries have received the designation, and fewer than 300,000 people from seven countries are benefiting.

Liberians first received the status in 1991 because of armed conflict. Montserratians got it in 1997, when a volcano devastated the island nation. Salvadorans, the largest group now under protected status, received it because of civil war in 1990 and because of damage from Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Advocates have argued that Haiti qualifies for the status because of ongoing political strife and because of natural disasters like Tropical Storm Jeanne, which unleashed flooding that killed more than 2,000 in 2004. At the time, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) called for the country to receive the status because of the storm. Now, advocates seek it again because of the unrest.

“I think it’s very interesting that Salvadorans and Hondurans have been given TPS for earthquakes that happened years ago,” said Jocelyn McCalla, a New York-based Haitian activist. “So why not Haitians? The will has been missing.”

Hard choice for U.S.

Kuck says he understands Bush administration reluctance to give Haitians temporary protected status.

“Nobody is going to want to stay [in Haiti] till we fix things there if we give TPS,” he said. “I think … [U.S. officials are] terrified of the floodgates opening.”

Today, about 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers patrol the country. Abby Maxman, CARE International’s country director in Haiti, called conditions dire. It’s not a new assessment. Real change, she said, has to involve more than just humanitarian organizations. “It requires a real, serious commitment for the long term,” she said.

The U.S. Department of State issued a travel advisory before the elections, citing a volatile security situation. It said they could be a “stimulus” for tension and violence.

But the election results alone won’t bring stability to the poverty-stricken nation, said Henry F. Carey, an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.

Haiti for years has had neither a strong government nor any properly functioning institutions.

But that won’t keep the Vincent family apart for long. Gabrielle Vincent said she recently quit her state government job to join a nonprofit that works in Haiti.

It means she will have to move to Ohio, but she will travel to Haiti.

“One thing, they cannot break our spirit,” said defiantly. “We are fighters.”

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