Lawyers Protest Deportation of Illegal Immigrants to Haiti
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 - Dozens of lawyers around the country joined forces on Thursday to protest the Department of Homeland Security's decision to continue deporting illegal immigrants to Haiti, an island nation plagued by political instability, violence and human rights violations.
The lawyers filed motions in dozens of cases, asking immigration judges to stop the deportations because their clients' lives may be threatened. The State Department has warned Americans against traveling to Haiti, citing the lack of an effective police force and the presence of armed gangs engaged in kidnappings and violent crime.
The lawyers, who held news conferences in Miami, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, said they were acting because homeland security officials had not given Haitians temporary protected status, which temporarily prevents the deportation of immigrants who cannot return to their native countries because of armed conflict, natural disasters or other extraordinary conditions.
Immigrants from Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, Liberia, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan have temporary protected status. The immigration lawyers involved in Thursday's protest said the situation in Haiti had been far worse than in those three Central American countries since a violent uprising and intense pressure by the United States forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004.
The United Nations says it has documented widespread cases of unlawful arrests and has received credible reports of police involvement in executions and banditry. The State Department says more than 25 Americans were kidnapped in Haiti last year, and local authorities say that over Christmas, kidnappings peaked to as many as 12 a day. Travel is so hazardous in Port-au-Prince, the capital, that American Embassy personnel have been barred from leaving their homes at night. More than 10 United Nations soldiers have been killed, officials say.
The lawyers want immigration judges to close the deportation cases until the situation in Haiti improves. Several lawyers said the legal strategy might not succeed on a broad scale because judges typically require assent from the government's lawyers before closing a case. But advocates for Haitian immigrants said they were trying to send the Bush administration a message and hoped that some judges would take action, even if it meant simply delaying decisions in deportation cases until Haiti stabilizes.
"I don't think it makes sense for the United States to send people back to a country where such devastating human rights violations are occurring," said Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Immigration Project in Boston. "Those Haitian deportees face grave risk to their lives, and that's not acceptable."
Candace Jean, a Miami immigration lawyer, said her clients were terrified of what they would experience when they returned to Haiti.
"They're horrified," Ms. Jean said. "Many are going into hiding."
Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the decision to grant temporary protected status was made in consultation with the State Department. Mr. Strassberger noted that many Haitian-Americans felt safe enough to travel to Haiti and that conditions in the country varied from place to place.
The State Department, which ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel and family members of embassy officials in Haiti last May, lifted the order several months later. But embassy officials have been told that dependents under 21 are still not permitted to travel to or remain in Haiti, the department said.
"It's a tough decision," Mr. Strassberger said. "The country itself is in a desperate situation. But at this point the United States government feels that the situation can be corrected by providing more aid as opposed to providing temporary protected status."
Karline St. Louis of Miami is hoping that officials will change their minds. Her husband, Kevin, who is being represented by Ms. Jean, expects to be deported any day.
"I'm praying that something will change," said Ms. St. Louis, 27, who has a 4-year-old son. "There's a lot of kidnapping in Haiti, a lot of killings going on. It is very scary."
Maggy Duteau, an immigration lawyer in New York, said she could not understand why Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Hondurans would be granted temporary protected status while Haitians would not.
"How bad does it have to get before something is done?" Ms. Duteau asked.