Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

A family together again: Immigration snags kept girl waiting in Haiti

By Maria Sacchetti, The Boston Globe

Abby Emile, 3, was reunited with her mother, Lynda, at Logan Airport after about seven months apart. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — On a steamy afternoon last month, Harry Emile entered the darkened foyer of a battered concrete house near the presidential palace. The house had been deemed safe enough to live in, but electricity was still scarce. He climbed the stairs past jagged cracks in the walls, to a second-floor living room, where his 3-year-old daughter Abby waited.

She wore a T-shirt saying in English that “my heart belongs to dad.’’ Tears sprang to his eyes and he smiled broadly at her, arms extended.

Abby did not recognize him.

“Harry,’’ he said, pointing at himself. The girl clung to Yvon Daguilh, her uncle, a rough-hewn man who was one of her caretakers for the past seven months.

“You don’t remember me, my love?’’ Harry said. “Your mother gave me something to give to you.’’

He pulled out a small package of mini-Oreo cookies. He unfolded a letter saying “I love you’’ in English from Lynda, his wife. He unpacked a big doll with a stethoscope and gave it to her.

Even before the powerful Jan. 12 earthquake, their reunions had been like this. The lack of recognition. The gifts. The slow comprehension that Harry is her father. For most of her life, they had been separated by an ocean — he in Boston, she in Haiti — and by immigration problems.

Within half an hour, she had wrapped her arms around him. Harry unpacked more gifts, told her stories, asked her questions.

“What did you do in school? he asked her. Abby smiled shyly but did not answer.

“Explain the earthquake to me,’’ he pressed her, and she ran away.

Harry, a medical technician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, had arrived just that afternoon from Boston and was stunned by what he saw. He had seen the images of earthquake destruction on television, but he was not prepared for the scenes outside of the airport: the sprawling tent camps, homeless families bathing outdoors, the crumpled ruins of the neighborhood where he and Lynda had left Abby in December with close relatives.

It was not supposed to have been like this, Harry thought. By now, Abby should have been with them in Boston, where he had immigrated six years before and, after a long wait for her own visa, his wife, Lynda, had joined him last December.

But there had been a hitch: Because of a wrinkle in immigration law, Harry’s new status as an American citizen had prevented Abby from being included on his wife’s visa. And they had made an agonizing choice to leave the girl behind in the care of relatives hoping to fix her immigration case and bring her quickly to Boston.

Instead, it would take almost seven months — seven months that would bring an earthquake and leave Abby living in a tent on her relatives’ rat-infested patio, the stench of dead bodies in the air, while Harry and Lynda worried and fought a bureaucratic battle.

It had been frustrating before the earthquake, but afterward it seemed merely cruel. Orphans and others were rushed out of Haiti, but Harry could not persuade US officials to rush his daughter’s case. He called US Representative Michael E. Capuano, but nothing moved.

After a Globe article in April, Senator Scott Brown offered to help, too, but he couldn’t make it move faster.

“Let us pray that she makes the June appointment list,’’ a Brown aide wrote to Harry in May.

She didn’t.

Abby was among tens of thousands of Haitians who are eligible to come to the United States, but are facing bureaucratic delays that advocates for immigrants say are keeping relatives of US citizens and permanent residents in dangerous conditions unnecessarily. The US government has rushed immigration programs for tens of thousands of Cubans and other groups, but not for Haitians whose relatives wish to bring them to the United States.

Federal officials say they are enforcing the laws, which require careful scrutiny of immigration applications in Haiti and around the world. Americans or legal residents who wish to bring relatives to the United States must file applications, pay fees, and prove that they can afford to support their relatives here, so that they will not become a public charge, among other requirements.

But in recent months politicians and advocates for immigrants have been pushing the federal government to swiftly admit Haitians whose relatives have been trying to bring them to the United States.

“They should be here yesterday. Haiti just suffered the worst devastation perhaps in the history of the hemisphere,’’ said Steven Forester, immigration policy coordinator for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a nonprofit based in Massachusetts, home to the third-largest Haitian community in the United States. “Anyone who can come here immediately should come here immediately and the United States should put in the resources to make that happen.’’

The US government is not considering a special program for Haitian immigrants, said Matthew Chandler, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, but he said the Obama administration had launched a massive response to help, spiriting out orphans and other groups, allowing Haitian immigrants illegally in the United States to stay here temporarily, and providing a flood of other relief to Haiti.

“In the aftermath of the tragic January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti, the Obama administration mounted the largest response to an international disaster in the history of our country,’’ he said.

In Hyde Park, Harry had watched that response from his living room. At first, it gave him hope: He kept dialing federal officials in hopes that Abby would be rushed out, too. But everyone told him he had to wait for her immigration papers to come through.

Early in the morning of Aug. 2, Harry and Abby got in line in front of the US Embassy along with dozens of others on a long dirt path outside the high security gates. Abby wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a peace sign and stood cheerily beside Harry, who was talking to Lynda on a cellphone in Boston, trying to calm her nerves. Tension was all around them, as adults clutched manila envelopes filled with crucial immigration documents and children in Sunday clothes tried not to fidget.

Even Harry was worried.

“I didn’t sleep last night,’’ he said. “Maybe because I’m so close.’’

In front of them was a man from New York hoping to bring his wife and infant child to America. Behind them was a Florida man who had applied for two teenage sons, but one died while they were waiting, of a mysterious illness after the quake.

If it all went well, in a few days, Harry would pick up Abby’s passport, with a visa stamped in it, buy plane tickets for him and Abby, and call Lynda to tell her the good news. But first Abby had to clear this hurdle.

He carried an envelope filled with the required documents: Abby’s photographs, her Haitian passport, a sealed medical exam performed by an embassy-approved doctor that would dictate whether she was healthy enough to travel to the United States. “Failure to present all necessary documents to the consular officer will result in the applicant’s immigrant visa being refused,’’ the appointment letter had warned them.

Harry and Abby were checked at the gate and waited inside for a consular official to call them to a glass window. The official asked Harry about his life in Boston, and what he had studied in school. Then he turned to Abby, but the chatty child had suddenly become shy. She covered her face with her hands, and Harry felt a slight panic.

Harry repeated the questions and coaxed her to answer. Finally, he bribed her with Cheetos. The consular officer asked if she wanted to go to Boston to see her mother.

She said yes.

The officer said Abby was qualified for a visa. Two hours later, they emerged from the consulate. Harry had tears in his eyes, and Abby was laughing at nobody in particular.

“We’re going to Boston,’’ he said.

They arrived on Saturday, Aug. 14, on Flight 535 from Miami. The airplane tickets cost $1,300 — more than one month’s rent in Boston. Harry was red-eyed and exhausted. Abby walked tentatively beside him, surrounded by bright lights, coffee shops, and people shouting greetings in English. Lynda was upset and crying; she had suffered migraines from the stress of worrying whether Abby would get a visa, and on this day she had trouble finding a ride to the airport to pick her up.

Harry’s sister and a friend who had a car ended up taking her and they arrived with a wilted bouquet of flowers and a bag of snacks for Abby. The child had grown, but Lynda spotted her immediately on the stairs to the baggage claim. She scooped Abby up with a shout, and burst into loud sobs, holding her close.

Abby smiled, and, after they made their way to the luggage belt, stood uncomplaining as Lynda smoothed her hair, wiped her hands, fixed her rumpled clothes, fed her crackers and sips of juice, making up for lost time.

For the first time since Harry and Lynda married in 2005, after years of short vacations and nightly phone calls and e-mails, they were a family. At night, when Harry rides the train home from work, he feels lighter because his wife and daughter are waiting for him. Lynda takes her daughter to English class, makes them supper, thinks about school for Abby.

Someday Harry will tell Abby the story of her trip to America. Lynda hopes that their daughter will not remember a thing.

For now, they are embracing what they had dreamed of all those years: An ordinary life.

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