Memo to Bill Clinton: Speak Out Against Haiti Deportations

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1996 anti-terrorist and immigration laws are being used to deport some Haitian immigrants in the U.S. to an island they haven’t seen since childhood, and which is struggling through a deadly cholera epidemic, warns a prominent immigration observer.

In response to a terrorist act committed by a U.S. citizen at home 15 years ago, the U.S. government is about to send Haitians who left their country as small children into a post-earthquake cholera epidemic and political turmoil—and in many cases, we can assume, to their deaths.

In 1996, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Congress hurriedly passed —and President Bill Clinton signed into law—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Shortly thereafter, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was passed. Both laws drastically expanded the range of crimes for which lawful U.S. residents are subject to mandatory detention and deportation or “removal.”

These immigrants were stripped of the right even to apply for a so-called waiver of deportation from an immigration judge.

Today, as we mark another grim anniversary, hundreds of legal Haitian residents in the U.S. are likely to become victims of that anti-terrorist and immigration reform legislation. Last month, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, confirmed that it plans to begin deportations in January of some 700 Haitians who have criminal records.

The timing couldn’t be worse. This week is the first anniversary of the earthquake which killed over 200,000 Haitians and left an estimated 1.5 million homeless. A subsequent cholera epidemic has killed an estimated 3,000 more. And the country remains dangerously unstable; results of the recent Haitian presidential election remain in dispute. Many of the Haitians being sent back have not seen the country since their childhood and have few family ties there to help them survive.

And most of them are not “illegals” but rather lawful residents here. Presumably they do not qualify for Temporary Protected Status, which, after the earthquake, was quickly enacted by the Obama Administration—to its credit—to stop certain Haitians who were not convicted of any criminal offense from being deported.

Rhetoric from Democrats and Republicans has helped convince the public that when someone with a green card is deported, it’s because he is dangerous. But that has not usually been the case.

How ‘Dangerous’ are Deportees?

Between 1997 and 2007, according to Human Rights Watch, “among legal immigrants who were deported, 77 percent had been convicted for such nonviolent crimes” as drug possession and traffic offenses. Using ICE statistics, the human rights group estimates that in those ten years, 434,495 people were deported as a consequence of non-violent criminal offenses, compared to 140,572 for violent offenses.

The rhetoric goes further. As Nancy Morawetz of New York University Law School explained in a June 2000 article in the Harvard Law Review, the 1996 laws allow ICE to refer to a lawful immigrant’s “conviction” when, according to the criminal justice system, there was no such thing; and to “imprisonment” when the criminal justice system gave the immigrant no jail time. Through perversities such as these, families have been torn apart, and people have been sent “back” to countries with which they have no ties. Billions of dollars in enforcement spending and potential tax revenue have been wasted and lost.

As for the Haitians targeted, when I asked Barbara Gonzales of ICE Public Affairs what their crimes were, she replied: “Here is a list of some of the charges that those facing removal are convicted of. Homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, embezzlement, money laundering and extortion.” When I asked for a complete list, Gonzales replied, “What I gave you is what I have.”

Those who have actually spoken with the Haitian prisoners have more information. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and several other civil rights groups have filed an emergency petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to stop the round-ups and deportations. These groups have identified, for example, a 43-year-old father of four; two of those children are minors. The U.S. intends to deport this man because of a conviction for drug possession with intent to sell, for which he served six months. He has no family in Haiti.

A 53-year-old man who has been here since 1980 has four children, three of whom are U.S. citizen minors. He owns a house here, and can be deported because of a drug conviction.

These are just two of the hundreds of cases attorneys are trying to identify.

Many of the Haitians who are to be deported have lived here for so long that they don’t speak Haitian Creole.


Dehumanizing Process

The current law does not allow us to see individuals, much less their families and the fuller context of their lives. ICE Public Affairs reinforces this dehumanizing process with its selective and duplicitous information.

It seems possible that President Clinton had no idea of the future consequences of what he was signing in 1996. Author Philip Schrag has described the secretive legislative process behind these laws in his book A Well-Founded Fear: The Congressional Battle to Save Political Asylum in America. Schrag quotes Senator Patrick Leahy’s comment that few of his fellow senators “have the foggiest notion of what it is they are voting on.” Many Democrats and Republicans in Congress acknowledged too late that they had gone too far. Bipartisan reform efforts were underway, but these came to a stop on September 11, 2001.

There are politicians who recognize the unfairness, but their own rhetoric has made them afraid to stand up for “criminal aliens” when immigration reform is discussed. Instead, “private bills” are introduced to help individual victims of these laws. Exceptions are made, and the laws remain.

On Christmas Eve 2010, then New York Governor David Paterson announced pardons for two dozen people subject to deportation as a result of past criminal convictions for which their debts have been paid. Paterson’s office provided sketches of those pardoned, people who “should be protected from inflexible and misguided immigration statutes.” For example:

“[E. C.] was brought to the United States from Haiti as a lawful permanent resident at age 10. He was convicted in 1997 of Attempted Burglary in the Third Degree and sentenced to five years on probation. He has maintained gainful employment and is married to a United States citizen with whom he has two young sons. The pardon will remove the basis for his deportation.”

If not for the governor’s pardon, E. C. could be sitting with other Haitians awaiting “removal” in a jail in Louisiana — in Jena or Waterproof, or in Basile, where ICE detainees went on hunger strike last year to protest insufficient medical care, predatory phone prices, filth, and separation from their families, lawyers, and case files, and were then thrown into solitary confinement in retaliation for their protests.

(Several years ago I had lunch in the cafeteria of the Pine Prairie Correctional Center with the general manager of Louisiana Correctional Services (LCS), which also owns and operates the jail at Basile. Now executive vice president of the ICE-contracted company, he told me without embarrassment that LCS saved money by not providing napkins to the inmates. “Most of these folks wouldn’t use them, anyway,” he said. )

In the weeks before Christmas, in a familiar enforcement pattern, Haitian immigrants were rounded up and bused hundreds of miles from Miami’s Krome Detention Center and elsewhere to these Louisiana jails, while their families and attorneys have scrambled to locate them. There are few pro-bono immigration attorneys in Louisiana. ICE strategy has long been to isolate detainees from legal help, and that’s what the agency is doing again. All of this is taking place, incidentally, as the current Administration trumpets its “reforms” of the immigration detention system.

Here’s a reality check. The laws mandating detention and removal—the laws through which these Haitians will be banished—are called immigration laws; but they constitute a separate justice system for non-citizens, no matter how long those people have been here.

Bill Clinton’s Unique Position

Former President Bill Clinton is in a unique position to take what would be a very unpopular stance on the impending deportation of Haitians who deserve to stay here, or at least to have their cases heard.

First, his foundation, the William J. Clinton Foundation, is very involved in post-earthquake rebuilding efforts. Second, it is because of his administration’s landmark anti-immigrant laws that most of these cases will not be heard.

In Haiti, as the cholera outbreak continues, the Clinton Foundation has listed its programs for cholera education and prevention among its accomplishments. The new deportation program is likely to create more cholera victims. Haiti regularly jails deportees who have criminal convictions, and cholera has reportedly spread through the prisons. In their emergency petition, CCR and other groups report the following:

“Jailed populations are particularly at risk, where the overcrowding, lack of sanitation or toilets, and lack of clean drinking water present classic conditions for cholera transmission…detainees are held in overcrowded cells and locked inside for 24 hours at a time with no outside break and are forced to sleep on insect- and rodent-infested cement floors and to defecate in bags and urinate in communal buckets…Paul Waggoner, a U.S. citizen aid worker [from Massachusetts] recently released from Haiti’s National Penitentiary, told the Montreal Gazette that there was no clean water in prison. Waggoner also reported that while he was in the National Penitentiary, ‘A couple of bodies a day were being removed from there…The last night I just went to the bathroom in plastic bags my friends had given me.'”

In a poem called “Botpipel” (Boat People), the late Haitian poet Felix Morisseau Leroy wrote: Nou tap kouri pou Fò Dimanch / Nou vin echwe nan Kwòm Avni.

“We were running from Ft. Dimanche / We washed ashore on Krome Avenue.”

Morisseau’s readers would have recognized the references to the penitentiary in Port-au-Prince and U.S. Immigration’s Krome Service Processing Center in Miami. Certain things have changed since Morisseau wrote those lines. “Criminal aliens” raised on our streets are not the same as asylum-seekers afraid to be killed on theirs. But they all have something in common with us: their humanity.

Former President Clinton should speak out against the imminent deportation of Haitians, “criminal alien” or otherwise. They aren’t all unsympathetic, and even those who are deserve our protection.

Then Clinton should address the laws making these deportations possible in the first place. They are unjust laws for which he bears responsibility.


Mark Dow is author of American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons (California 2004), which was condemned by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Public Affairs and used as a resource by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) in its audits of detention centers. He teaches English at Hunter College CUNY in New York.

Photo by Matthew Marek/American Red Cross via Flickr.

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