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One Year Later: Deportations to Haiti Deepen Open Wounds

This is a guest post from Karen Winston. Karen is a sponsored by the Florida Bar Foundation and is working at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. Since Haiti’s earthquake, Karen has been working to provide Haitian immigrant detainees at the Baker County detention facility with legal services.


 One year ago, we watched the island of Haiti get plummeted by a devastating earthquake and we asked ourselves, “What can I do to help?” Images of destruction would not soon be forgotten.  Since the tragic earthquake, the cholera epidemic has claimed the lives of over 2,400 Haitians combined with violence over recent elections. There are 1.2 million displaced and living in makeshift tent cities.  Conditions in Haiti continue to deteriorate. Following the earthquake, the U.S. government instituted a humane policy of not deporting Haitians with criminal convictions and of releasing detained Haitians with final orders of removal after 180 days.  In early December 2010, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it would resume deportations to Haiti despite the worsening conditions.

As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, I work with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid providing legal outreach, advocacy, and representation to immigrant detainees at the Baker County Detention Center. Immigrant detainees do not have a right to free legal counsel, and are often unable to hire a private attorney. Through this project, I interview immigrants held at Baker and determine whether they may be eligible for VAWA, U-visa, asylum, or other forms relief. As part of the project I will also conduct "know your rights" presentations.

In early December I encountered approximately 50 Haitians who were taken into custody after previously being released on orders of supervision despite not violating any conditions of their release. Just days later, all of the Haitians were suddenly transferred to detention facilities throughout Louisiana far removed from their families and access to legal counsel, where they were awaiting deportation to Haiti. Many of the Haitians scheduled to be deported had serious physical and mental health concerns.

Haitian deportees will be held in prison upon their return to Haiti. The current cholera epidemic began in Haiti's prisons, claiming 48 lives so far in the prisons alone.  Advocates on the ground in Haiti have described the prisons as having no toilets or running water and that prisoners' only access to clean water or food is if they have family outside of prison that can bring it to them.  Prisoners with or suspected to have cholera are kept crowded in a single cell with no toilets or running water and are cared for by a female prisoner. 

Currently, there are over 20 newly detained Haitians at the Baker facility. With help from Florida Coastal School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, I am working to meet their need for representation.  I recently gave a special “Know Your Rights” presentation to Haitians at imminent risk of deportation. From this presentation, we were able to complete intakes for all the Haitians detained at Baker to identify those who may be eligible for relief. Many have requested I contact their families and Pastor; all are terrified to return to Haiti. 

Combating Haitian deportation post-final order is not an easy task.  Very thorough and detailed interviews are required, the record of proceeding must be examined for a solid basis to reopen the case and there must simultaneously be a strong and narrowly tailored argument that deportation would violate the Convention Against Torture.  I am currently working to increase pro bono representation of this population through referrals to the Immigrant Rights Clinic and pro bono attorneys.  As I review each intake and gather evidence on the horrid prison conditions in Haiti, I am baffled by the decision to deport anyone amidst such a humanitarian crisis as currently faced by Haiti.

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