By GINGER THOMPSON
Vialine Jean Paul has noticed a change when she drops her 7-year-old daughter off at school each morning in recent weeks. Her daughter, Angela, is not sure that her mother will be back to pick her up.
“She tells me, ‘Mommy, good luck,’ ” Mrs. Jean Paul said, choking back tears. “She asks me, ‘Mommy, if you go to Haiti, what will happen to me?’ ”
Though Angela does not know it, the hopes of tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants and their relatives have become fixed on her mother’s fate. Mrs. Jean Paul is one of more than 30,000 Haitian citizens who have been ordered deported from the United States. Her case could be an early test of whether the Obama administration will break with the strict immigration enforcement policies of the Bush administration.
After an estimated 1,000 people were killed in mudslides in Haiti last year, the government asked the United States to grant temporary protected status to Haitian immigrants — relief that was extended when Honduras and El Salvador were hit by similar disasters. The designation is intended for countries in such dire trouble that receiving deportees would undermine their stability.
Deportations of Haitians were temporarily suspended last September, while the Bush administration considered the request. In December, the request was denied and the deportations resumed.
Lawyers say hundreds of people were detained, pushing detention centers across Florida beyond capacity. Hundreds of other immigrants were forced to wear electronic monitoring devices.
Advocates for immigrants said the arrests and deportations have taken a toll on Haitian communities, tearing immigrants — whose only crime was entering the United States illegally — from their American spouses and children and condemning them to lives of poverty and violence in a country devastated by political instability and natural disaster.
“They told us they were going after criminal aliens,” said her lawyer, Cheryl Little, referring to the immigration policies of the Bush administration. “Would we be any safer if Vialine were deported? I think not. We are devoting a lot of resources going after the wrong people.”
Mrs. Jean Paul, 35, had not set foot in Haiti since she fled 17 years ago, in the turmoil after a military coup. During her time in this country, she had married an American citizen and devoted herself to taking care of Angela, who suffers from an undiagnosed illness that causes severe headaches and vomiting.
On Feb. 10, the date she was ordered to report for deportation after exhausting efforts to remain in the United States, she was on her way to an immigration office to turn herself in. Then her cellphone rang, and an immigration officer told her that her deportation had been delayed.
Aides to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she was reviewing the matter of Haitian deportations.
Meanwhile, the Haitian government has refused to issue travel documents to deportees, and the United States authorities said they were worried that confusion in Haiti over American policy was causing a surge in the numbers of Haitians trying to flee their country.
The Coast Guard intercepted 624 Haitians at sea in January, compared with none in November. Another 214 were intercepted on an overloaded freighter last weekend.
A decision on Ms. Jean Paul’s case is expected March 9.
Saintenese Mentor said her husband, Brice, might not have that long. A former aide at an adult education center and the father of two children born in the United States, he was detained six months ago, Mrs. Mentor said.
Mr. Mentor’s lawyers said the authorities had told them his deportation was imminent.
Mrs. Mentor said her 2-year-old son wakes up crying for his father every night, while her 3-year-old daughter has refused to learn to count or tie her shoes until he comes home.
In the meantime, she said, without her husband’s income, her family is close to losing everything. Their home is in foreclosure, she said, and their bills are months overdue.
“I’m waiting to see what God is going to do,” she said. “I’m only human. I can’t do anymore.”
A State Department official, who asked not to be named because temporary protected status is a Homeland Security matter, said the United States was aware of the hardship caused in Haiti by last year’s storms. He noted that the United States responded with humanitarian assistance, including medical services provided aboard the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge.
But, he said, the United States determined that a strong international presence in Haiti, led by some 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers, gave that country sufficient support to accommodate deportees.
“This is a controversial position,” the official said, acknowledging a flood of letters from Haitian advocates and members of Congress, along with newspaper editorials calling on President Obama to stop the deportations. “But we believed Haiti had the structures on the ground that it needed to solve its problems.”
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Ray Joseph, disagreed with that assessment. Haiti’s existence has largely been defined by chaos. But the storms, he said, deepened the crisis, fueling runaway inflation and food shortages. He said tens of thousands of storm victims have been left without proper shelter, and the country is plagued by violent crime.
“Haiti had a very, very bad year in 2008,” Mr. Joseph said. “Why send these people back, when we have no place to put them?”
Louiness Petit-Frere exists on the charity of friends, according to his wife and relatives. He was detained six months ago when he and his wife, an American citizen went to request legal status for him. He was deported in January.
“He has no family there,” said his wife, Sherly Desir Petit-Frere, who recently returned from visiting him. “He has no water, no electricity, no work. It’s hell for him.”
Mr. Petit-Frere’s brother, Sgt. Nikenson Pierre Louis, just returned from two combat tours in Iraq.
“All the hard work and fighting I did to defend this country, I feel like none of that mattered,” Sergeant Pierre Louis. “My brother was no criminal. He never got into trouble. And still they threw him back into a shark pool.”