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26278: Hermantin(News)Omila Foufoune Cesaire faces deportation to the Haiti she fled in (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Miami New Times
Posted September 15, 2005
After thirteen years in Miami, Omila Foufoune Cesaire faces deportation to the
Haiti she fled in fear
By Tristram Korten
Like thousands of others, Foufoune Cesaire faces deportation to Haiti because
of an oversight in a federal law meant to provide amnesty to her and others
The United States can represent many things to the world's impoverished, but in
late September 1992, this country meant one very basic thing to Omila Foufoune
Cesaire: safety. She was in a panic to escape the murderous gangs and lethally
berserk military that prowled the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, killing her
neighbors and looting their homes in the bloody aftermath of the coup that
ousted democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.
She recalls the night she heard a marauding posse descend on Avenue Jean
Claude, in the neighborhood known as Carrefour, sending her scurrying out her
apartment's rear door and into the darkness. She says her street was
enthusiastically pro-Aristide, and Cesaire herself belonged to a local
community group affiliated with the president's political party. "They killed
Yves, Harold, and Gogol," remembers Cesaire, who was five months pregnant at
the time. "Yves was my neighbor. They smashed the house of Rosemarie. And they
smashed my house. They went in and took everything, all the sacks of rice and
beans." Her meager livelihood -- selling food on the street -- was over. She
hid in an anonymous downtown hotel, her mother's blunt advice echoing in her
ears: Don't step outside -- you never know who might see you.
Cesaire holed up for 30 days while negotiating to acquire a fraudulent passport
with a coveted visa to the U.S. (a photo was switched out of a valid passport
and hers pasted in its place), paid for with money sent by her first husband,
who was already living in South Florida. Then she bought a plane ticket to
At Miami International Airport, immigration officials took one look at her
passport and confronted her. She gave her real name and appealed for asylum.
While her asylum claim slowly worked its way through the federal bureaucracy,
she received a work permit. Over the years she has labored at minimum-wage jobs
in a Hialeah shoe factory, in a laundromat, and as a hotel chambermaid. She's
been living here thirteen years, raising two U.S.-born children. Last year she
and her new husband bought a two-bedroom home in North Miami.
In 1998 Congress passed the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA),
granting residency status to Haitians known to have arrived prior to 1996. It
was essentially an amnesty for those who fled Haiti during the dictatorships of
the Eighties and the coup of 1991, whether they received asylum or not. (HRIFA
is in fact a response to notoriously low asylum approval rates for Haitians.)
Eventually Cesaire was denied her bid for asylum, so she applied for residency
That is when she learned the grim Catch-22 of her situation. The amnesty act
did not apply to her because she used a false document to enter the country.
Immigration officials ordered her deportation to Haiti.
Cesaire's story is hardly unique. Haitians desperate to reach the U.S. by air
commonly used fake passports. In fact an estimated 2000 to 3000 people are in
her predicament -- long-term, hard-working, law-abiding residents who are now
facing deportation to a highly unstable country.
A survivalist imperative drove them to commit a transgression that today
elicits little sympathy in the U.S. But to flee by water, the only other
option, was far too dangerous. The U.S. Coast Guard maintained a tight blockade
to intercept boaters, only to summarily return them dockside in Haiti (without
so much as an interview after a 1992 policy change) to the helmeted and
homicidal military they'd just fled. "The more real and bona fide the threat of
repression, the more suicidal it would have been for the person to flee by
boat," says Steven Forester, senior policy advocate for Haitian Women of Miami,
who is waging a campaign to provide protection to the airplane people.
It was widely understood that, if you had the financial means, it was far safer
to come dekolaj, the Kreyol term for using fake documents to fly here. The
bogus passports were not meant to fool anyone on the U.S. side; they were far
too crude. They were intended only to foil the guards at the Port-au-Prince
airport, "since dictators don't give travel papers to those they want to
repress," Forester notes.
The framers of HRIFA, most notably former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and former
Congresswoman Carrie Meek, acknowledge it was an oversight not to cover the
plane people. "I was unaware there was a difference in treatment," Graham says
today. "If you came in with no documents, as many of those did who came by
boat, then you were on track for consideration as a refugee. If you came in
with false documents, you were excluded. And the airplane people frequently
were in the greatest fear for their lives. I don't think anybody was aware of
this disparity at the time."
One of the reasons for the lapse, according to Forester, was that much of the
bill's language was copied directly from earlier legislation intended for
Nicaraguans fleeing political violence in their country. But because those
refugees illegally crossed a land border, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central
American Relief Act didn't concern itself with the use of fake documents.
This past April, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, Carrie Meek's son, sponsored the
HRIFA Improvement Act of 2005 to remedy the glitch, including a provision to
"expand coverage to most Haitians who arrived in the U.S. by air."
"It's really key that this act cover those people who came by air," says Meek,
who has visited Haiti five times this year alone. "The people who used false
documents to get here were fleeing for their lives -- literally. They arrived
at MIA and for the most part admitted the fact that they were leaving Haiti and
wanted to claim political asylum." That, he adds, is how the Department of
Homeland Security detected them in the first place and knew to target them for
Meek's proposed legislation could mean little for Cesaire. It must first go to
a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, then to the full committee,
and then to the House for debate. Meanwhile time is running out; Cesaire
received her deportation order in 2004. It is now on appeal, along with
One temporary option for relief rests with the Department of Homeland Security.
"The DHS has the ability to give waivers to asylum seekers who used fake
documents," Meek says. "They are not doing that." But Forester says granting
waivers is complex, adding "that's why a HRIFA Improvement Act is needed." He'd
like to see Congress order DHS to suspend deportations and reinstate work
Meek has previously butted heads with DHS over Haitian immigration issues, and
the frustration is evident in his voice. In July he pushed to gain residency
for a Haitian teenager whose case was taking so long to be processed by DHS the
boy was about to become an adult while waiting, which would have triggered
automatic deportation. Ultimately the teen, Ernso Joseph, was allowed to stay.
Graham and Meek acknowledge that the current political climate is not friendly
to immigration issues. "The House environment is not what it should be to make
sure we have this HRIFA Improvement Act," Meek laments. Yet with each
deportation the misery compounds. Not only are families broken up (Cesaire
would have to leave her children behind with her husband) but also Haiti's
subsistence economy is further eroded. Haitians living in the U.S. often
support extended families back home with the money they earn here. When working
Haitians are deported, families go broke, creating more instability and more
reasons for people to flee the country. That, of course, is more work for the
This is an argument Forester would like to impress on lawmakers -- that it's in
our national interest to allow these people to remain.
It's also in our national interest to act with compassion and logic toward
ordinary people about to be harshly punished for what amounts to a
technicality. "What we're saying is that, once they're here, they should have
due process that's fair and humane," Meek says. "This is a life-and-death
Originally published by Miami New Times 2005-09-15
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.