Deportations to Haiti: Still a Death Sentence

This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency formalized its Haitian deportation policy. ICE claims it will consider medical and humanitarian factors when deciding whether to deport someone to Haiti. Yet, the policy will still lead to deportations, as early as next week, of individuals like “Fred,” a 20-year-old born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents, whose entire family lives in the US. Before being deported in January, he had never before set foot in Haiti, but was permanently expelled from the US for attempting to sell $20 of cocaine to an undercover cop. And as the US government knows, deportations to Haiti amount to a death sentence for deportees.

The massive earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, left nearly 300,000 Haitians dead and over 1.2 million more displaced and homeless. Overnight, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere was catapulted into a crisis of unthinkable proportions. Basic sanitation, adequate food, potable water and shelter were absent. Recognizing a crisis, the US government halted deportations to Haiti on humanitarian grounds. In the year since, the crisis in Haiti has gone from bad to worse: a cholera epidemic rages throughout the country, the Haitian government is deeply compromised and sexual assaults and forced evictions are well-documented in the tent camps. The situation is particularly bad in Haitian detention centers – where deportees are locked up and where cholera has already claimed approximately 60 lives.

In December 2010, the US government announced it was resuming deportations of Haitian nationals with criminal convictions and then secretly rounded up a few hundred Haitians and placed them in immigration detention jails. We implored our government to reverse course. We warned that deportees would be detained in filthy jails and exposed to disease and abuse upon arrival in Haiti (standard practice prior to the earthquake).

We turned to the international community. We filed an emergency petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a human rights body in the Organization of American States. In February 2011, the IACHR recognized the potential human rights violations and urged the US government not to deport Haitians, particularly those who are ill or have significant family ties in the US. Similarly, the United Nations independent expert on Haiti asked all countries to “refrain from expelling Haitians and continue to provide decent temporary arrangements for their protection on humanitarian grounds.”

Our calls fell on deaf ears. In January 2011, the US government deported 27 men to Haiti. They were detained for nearly two weeks in cells covered in feces, vomit, trash and blood-stained walls. They were denied medical care, food and water. The leader of the group – a 34-year-old man named Wildrick Guerrier who came to be known as “Black Jesus” – cleaned up the facility and took care of ill and elderly prisoners. Yet, when “Black Jesus” and others fell ill with cholera-like symptoms, the guards denied them medical care, telling them “you were sent here to die.” Mr. Guerrier died a short time later. After learning of the tragic death, our government should have stopped all deportations to Haiti.

And two weeks ago, we attended a meeting at the IACHR with representatives from the US Departments of State and Homeland Security. The US government representatives acknowledged the conditions in Haitian detention to which deportees are exposed are “disgusting and inhumane.” They indicated that perhaps our government had deported people in error. We were optimistic the US government would do the right thing. We were wrong.

The primary reason the US government has given for resuming deportations is public safety. Yet, despite the US government's claims that it intended to limit removals to “serious criminals,” the first 27 men removed included people with low-level convictions. All of the individuals being detained in Louisiana today have served their criminal sentences or had such minor convictions they were never sentenced to time in jail.

Haiti is in a particularly precarious position now. The cholera epidemic has led to a quarter of a million known cases in Haiti with 4,717 reported deaths as of March 18, 2011. And a new study by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Harvard Medical School, published March 16 in the journal Lancet, predicts 779,000 cases of cholera – nearly twice the number previously expected – between March and November of this year alone. On top of that, there is election chaos, the coming rainy season and a large-scale departure of many international organizations from Haiti in the near future. The Haitian government has made no commitment not to detain deportees upon arrival, nor has it made any commitment to improve the general conditions for deportees.

The right to life should not be selectively applied depending on one's citizenship status or a prior bad act. The US government has a basic obligation not to deport anyone to death. Our country must live up to its human rights commitments and immediately halt any and all deportations to Haiti.