U.S. Set to Resume Deportations to Haiti

And the situation's worse for people with even minor criminal convictions.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jan 14, 2011

Just one year after a the earthquake that left Haiti devastated and killed more than 300,000 people, the United States is preparing to resume deporting people to the ravaged country.

After the disaster, the Obama administration offered Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to Haitians living in the U.S. TPS has historically been granted to immigrants from countries facing war or natural disaster, circumstances that make returning there particularly perilous. The deadline Haitian nationals have for filing for TPS is January 18. After that, Haitians who have not applied and lack needed documentation are at risk of deportation. Over 60,000 have applied for protected status according to the government, but an untold number have yet to apply.

Not everyone is eligible for TPS. Those with criminal convictions, even some minor ones, cannot receive protection, and it’s that populations who now faces immanent deportation to Haiti. Advocates say that resuming deportation now could amount to a death sentence for some of those expelled.

U.S. immigration officials say they plan to deport only serious offenders, but that definition still isn’t clear. Under the TPS rules, many minor run-ins with law can make a person ineligible for TPS and now vulnerable to deportation.

On December 9, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would begin deportations in January around the one-year anniversary of the quake. The government immediately began rounding up and detaining Haitians with criminal convictions, many of whom had long ago served time in jail and now live settled lives with their families, according to their supporters.

While nobody has been deported yet, the government says it plans to begin removing people this month. Legal advocates say that dozens of Haitian men and women with criminal records have been moved to a detention center in Louisiana, which often serves as the departure point for government deportation flights to Haiti.

It’s not a good time to arrive in Haiti. The cholera epidemic is still taking lives and thousands remain homeless. Many of those slated for deportation have lived in the United States for years along with their families. They’ll arrive in a changed country without support networks.

The U.S. government knows that Haiti is not a safe place these days. In a letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a coalition of legal advocacy groups including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, and several university law clinics write:

It is ironic that on December 9, 2010, the same day ICE lifted its ban on deportations, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning discouraging any nonessential travel to Haiti on account of the situation of "continued high crime, the cholera outbreak, frequent disturbances in Port-au-Prince and in provincial cities, and limited police protection and access to medical care."

Deportees to Haiti are not greeted warmly by the government there. In the past, deported people have been incarcerated upon arrival in jails with serious health and safety problems. Risk of contracting cholera is increased in jails and other health risks in the overcrowded institutions pose serious risks to those locked up there. According to the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, jails in the country have historically failed to provide incarcerated people with meals, instead expecting inmates’ families to bring them food. But for deported people without ties in Haiti, that may prove impossible. One U.S. based legal service provider who said she’s talked with about ten detainees in Louisiana detention centers said that only one had family in Haiti who he could rely on to bring meals.

The letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights tells the stories of several men who are slated for deportation. One of them is Evel Camelien, a 53-year-old who arrived in the United States by boat in 1980.

…Mr. Camelien has four children in the United States, ages 9, 11, 18, and 28. Three of his children in the United States are U.S. citizens and one is a lawful permanent resident. Prior to being detained by U.S. immigration authorities, Mr. Camelien was living with his older children and financially supporting his two younger children. …

Mr. Camelien had three other children who were living in Haiti, but all three died in the earthquake. Mr. Camelien also lost his mother, father, and sister-in-law to the disaster. Because Mr. Camelien has an order of removal based on a drug conviction, he will be detained by Haitian authorities upon arrival in Haiti. He has only a few members of his extended family living in Haiti. Mr. Camelien does not know where they are living and it is highly unlikely that, even if he is able to locate them, they would be able to assist Mr. Camelien once he is deported to Haiti and jailed.

Advocates are pushing the Obama Administration to halt the deportations before they resume, at least until conditions in Haiti are less dangerous. Meanwhile, some Congressional leaders are calling for an extension of Temporary Protected Status, which ends on July 18 for those in the program.