The Miami Herald
Tue, July 12, 2005

Haitian teen wins battle to stay

An orphaned Haitian teen who waged an arduous fight to remain in the United States finally got his wish Monday -- just in time for his 18th birthday.


Ernso ''Ernesto'' Joseph, the homeless Haitian teen whose near three-year immigration battle reached from Little Haiti to Washington, D.C., received a birthday present Monday that money could not buy: the right to stay in the United States.

It took just five minutes.

''Happy Birthday, early,'' Miami Immigration Judge Denise Slavin said as she approved Joseph's petition to become a legal permanent U.S. resident and adjust his legal status. ``It is a just resolution in this case.''

Slavin's decision came just in time: Joseph turns 18 on Saturday, and as an adult, he would have faced deportation to Haiti without a green card.

''I am happy,'' said the shy teen, who smiled and silently issued a ''Thank You God'' as Slavin spoke.

Monday's decision ended a gut-wrenching legal saga that began soon after Joseph arrived in South Florida on Oct. 29, 2002. The then-15-year-old was among more than 200 Haitian migrants who arrived near Key Biscayne on a rickety boat after fleeing his volatile homeland in hopes of finding a better life.

Joseph, an orphan, found himself facing immigration authorities who refused to believe he was a minor. Instead, they insisted Joseph was 19, an adult, and detained him at the Krome detention center in West Miami-Dade.

Even after an immigration judge granted him asylum on the grounds that as an orphan he would face persecution on the streets of Haiti, where homeless children are often victimized and recruited by street gangs, federal immigration officials refused to release him.

The judge was Slavin.

On Monday, while warning Joseph about the responsibilities his newfound status carries, she told him: ``It's particularly a pleasure for me because I remember when you appeared before me then. And I thought you should have been allowed to stay from then.''

But back then, immigration officials successfully appealed Slavin's decision and the Board of Immigration Appeals ordered him deported.

At one point, immigration authorities even sent investigators to Haiti to search for Joseph's parents' grave and forced the teen to submit to dental and wrist X-rays to determine his age.

They also demanded authentic birth certificates, which showed he was born July 16, 1987.

Through it all, Joseph would find himself in and out of detention, fearing deportation to Haiti at every turn. Even after he was finally released, life was not easy.

After living with his uncle, he was sent to live in foster care. He is now with his second foster family, and hopes to one day become either a mechanic or a police officer.

''I would like to become a policeman, but I have to think about my family in Haiti who I have to help,'' he said, referring to two sisters and a younger brother. His brother, Ophelio, came with him on the boat but was immediately sent back to Haiti after failing to make it to shore.

Joseph's attorneys at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center eventually got a Florida juvenile court judge to agree that he was indeed a minor.

However, immigration officials didn't give up their fight until the Administrative Appeals Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington, D.C., ruled in March that Joseph was eligible to apply for permanent legal status as a juvenile.

On Monday, Immigration Attorney Patricia B. Kelly Le Bienvenu, who walked into court Joseph's oversized file, marked ''Part II,'' simply asked Joseph's attorney, Deborah Lee, which address to send future correspondence.

The teen still has one more appointment, a formality, before he receives his actual green card. He already has his legal permit, allowing him to work.

''How many hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars have been spent by the government to try and deport Ernso?'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of FIAC.

'This case took thousands and thousands of attorneys' hours, not to mention help from U.S. Congressman Kendrick Meek.''

Meek took a personal interest in Joseph and championed his case from the start.

When former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge refused to answer any of his five letters, the Miami congressman cornered Ridge after a State of the Union address to plead Joseph's case. Ridge later cleared the way for a Florida family court judge -- not immigration officials -- to decide whether Joseph was a juvenile.

''It literally took an act of Congress to get us to this place, and a number of people on the ground,'' Meek said Monday.

``It should not have taken that much, especially for a child that had a slam dunk asylum claim.''

When told that the judge delivering Joseph's birthday present was the very judge who first gave him hope on Jan. 29, 2003 -- when she granted his asylum claim, only to have it overturned -- Meek said: ``Isn't God good?''