Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

New Life is No Life for U.S. Ex-cons in Haiti Criminal Deportation is a Sore Point With the Impoverished Caribbean Nation, Where Former Inmates Are Often Blamed for Rising Crime (Chicago Tribune)

By Gary Marx, Chicago Tribune
May 5, 2007

In recent years, U.S. authorities have deported to Haiti some 2,000 criminals of Haitian descent under a controversial policy that some officials here say has helped fuel a wave of kidnappings and other violent crime.

The deportees, who have been convicted in the U.S. of crimes ranging from armed robbery to sexual abuse, often grow up in America and return to this impoverished land, instilling fear in other Haitians while facing their own hardship and discrimination.

“It’s been rough,” said Augustin Saint-Ville, 30, who said he was deported from the U.S. a decade ago after serving 5 1/2 years in prison for selling crack cocaine. “I want to go back. You’ve got to have money to be in Haiti, and there is no money.”

The deportation of criminals has become a sore point between the U.S. and Haiti, which is struggling to absorb an increasing number of ex-cons at a time when the judicial system has collapsed, its prisons are overcrowded, the police force is weak and political stability is tenuous.

“It is a very sensitive issue,” said Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S. “In the past, we’ve asked that they slow down the pace [of deportations] because some of the deportees are hardened criminals who learned their trade in America.”

In December, Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis said U.S. authorities threatened to cut assistance to Haiti if it refused to accept the deportees.
U.S. diplomats in Port-au-Prince deny making such a threat and challenge the assertion that criminal deportees, known here as “DPs,” imperial public security.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen any statistics that would bear out the allegations that deportees are responsible for the crime wave,” Janet Sanderson, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said in an interview. “I think the crime wave in Haiti goes much deeper than that.”

Role of deportees disputed Fred Blaise, chief spokesman for the United Nations police force in Haiti, said not a single criminal deportee is among the hundreds of Haitians arrested in recent months during a major crackdown by UN troops against Haiti’s powerful street gangs.

Diplomats and police say the gangs are largely responsible for the nation’s 603 kidnappings in the past 16 months, along with many other serious crimes.

“People have had that big myth that there was a bunch of criminal deportees that were involved,” said Blaise, who represents the police component of the UN’s 8,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Haiti. “It ended up being not true.”

Still, many deportees say the Haitian government’s effort to demonize them has made it difficult to find jobs or achieve broader acceptance.

“Everyone is so afraid of us even though we haven’t done anything here,” said James Felix, 31, a Belle Glade, Fla., resident deported in January after serving 17 months in prison for cocaine possession and child neglect. “We are looked at as killers. We are public enemy No. 1.”

Scorned as ‘troublemakers’ Like many Haitians, businessman Georges Sassine said he would never hire a criminal deportee because he considers them “troublemakers.”

“There are too many good people here,” said Sassine, who owns a textile factory and is vice president of the Haitian Manufacturers Association.

“Why am I going to hire a reject?”

The battle over criminal deportees dates back to 1996 when the U.S. changed immigration law to make it easier to deport aliens for crimes ranging from theft to drug possession.

Last year, U.S. authorities deported 88,662 criminal aliens, with the majority going to seven Latin American and Caribbean nations: Mexico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Jamaica and Guatemala.

Politicians throughout the region blame the ex-cons for a surge in street gangs and violent crime. The Caribbean now has the world’s highest homicide rate.

But a March report by the UN and World Bank attributed the Caribbean’s soaring crime rate to drug trafficking and other factors.

“The average deportee is not involved in criminal activity, but a minority may be causing serious problems, both by direct involvement in crime and by providing a perverse role model for youth,” the report concluded.

The U.S. suspended the deportation of criminal aliens to Haiti in July 2004 after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. American and Haitian officials apparently agreed the political situation was too volatile to add ex-cons to the mix.

Deportations resumed

But the deportations resumed last year after President Rene Preval took office, and, because of a backlog, about 100 ex-cons arrive each month in Haiti, more than double the average number since 2003. Many of the deportees are from Boston, New York and Florida, where there are large Haitian-American communities.

Gerard Morency, adjunct coordinator at Haiti’s National Office of Migration, said most deportees are not violent offenders, a fact he hopes to spread to the public through radio and television ads beginning this month.

“We want to tell people that they [deportees] are not that bad,” Morency said. “We want to get rid of that stigma.”

The U.S. also is spending $1 million to provide new deportees counseling, job training and other services to ease their reintegration into Haitian life. But the program is in its infancy, and its results are unclear.

New deportees are detained on arrival in Haiti for anywhere from several days to several months before being released on probation. Some detainees like Felix complain that police pressured them into paying bribes to get out of jail.

At a police headquarters near the airport, some 80 prisoners—including 11 deportees—are packed into a holding cell where many sleep on a bare, concrete floor. The jailers provide no food or bedding.

“Your family has to provide for you. If you have no family, you might die,” said Christopher Desamours, a 38-year-old Florida resident held at the facility who was deported in April after serving 32 months in prison for conspiracy to possess cocaine.

Buffed from prison weights and sporting earrings and fresh clothes, some new arrivals project an air of superiority when faced with Haiti’s crushing poverty and underdevelopment.

But that attitude is soon displaced by loneliness and despair as they struggle in an unfamiliar land without wives, children and other loved ones back in the United States.

“I’m afraid,” said Desamours, who left a wife and two daughters, ages 8 and 3, in Florida. “I want to see them. I am the only one who can provide for them. They depend on me.”

Felix and many other deportees struggle speaking Creole, Haiti’s primary language, because they immigrated to the U.S. as youngsters. Economic opportunities also are rare in a nation where most people live on a dollar or two a day.

Astrel Jacques, a 36-year-old deportee from Columbia, Md., said he earned $9 an hour as a cook in the U.S. before he was convicted of selling cocaine, served 6 years in prison and was sent back to Haiti in 2003.

“Where are you going to find a job at?” asked Jacques. “There’s not McDonald’s in Haiti. There is no Burger King. This is reality.”

Some sleep in parks

Some deportees end up sleeping in parks, while others lose their minds. Frantz Laraque, a 53-year-old criminal deportee from New York, wanders downtown Port-au-Prince telling people that he is the Messiah.

In the end, many deportees like Jacques and Felix live off the money sent by family in the U.S., or by teaching English, doing odd jobs or starting a business.

Ronald Michel, 27, and four other ex-cons founded a recording studio and music store in Port-au-Prince that promotes rap and reggae.

A 2003 deportee from Spring Valley, N.Y., convicted of burglary, Michel said he lost 45 pounds in his first year in Haiti because he had little money and food. Michel thought about returning to a life of crime but instead got into the music business.

“I don’t see myself out here sticking people up and selling drugs,” he said. “I did that in the States because I was confused and young. We don’t make much, but I’m not starving.”

gmarx@tribune.com

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