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Haitian Refugees Shunned By U.S.

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Editor's note: When people campaignfor apresidentialcandidateandwin, that'sdemocracy. When, a few monihs later, these saine people are hunted down, tortured and murdered by U.S. -armed soldie rs, t 's a story that the American people ought to liear. Wlien that happened in Haití, the Bitsh administration moved to suppress the story. In the wake of last September's military coup against President Jean-BertrandAristide, the U.S. Coast Guard arrested thousands offleeing Haitians at sea and put them through a process that would sendmosl of them back to Haili. The White House, which claims tliat the Haitians are economie migrantswithno real fear of politicalpersecution, found a way to silence those who know othenvise. Bysending the Haitians to Guantanamo Bay, a restricted-access U.S. military base in Cuba, Bush built a razor wire banier between the press (and the American people) and those who fled Haiti's reign of terror. Neilher the Coast Guard nor the Immigration and Naturalizalion Service (INS) had enough Creole speakers to conduct immigration hearings which the refugees could understand. Thisdidnot prevent them front conduct ing "hearings " which the accused did nol understand. Many Haitians we re sent back after such proceedings. However, public protests and lawsuits forced the government to give the refugees a few more rights in theirbidto obtainpolitical refugee status and eventual admission to the U.S. (The protests and litigation are ongoing, for example, over whether the Haitians have a meaningful righl to a lawyer's assistance.) One victory in the legal struggleforthe Haitians was the right to on inlerpreter. Jennie Smith was one ofeighteen Creole-speakingAmericanshiredby the INSto goto Guantanamo to interpret for the Haitians' immigration hearings. Thus Smith, who learned to speak Creóle from living in Haili as a Mennonite missionary, was one of the few who were allowed to hear the refugees ' terrible stories. Along the way, she also bore witness to U.S. mistreatment of the Haitians. Smith was thefeatured speaker at an April 12 HaitianCaribbean dinner and cultural review which was sponsoredby the Haili Solidarity Group and Ann Arbor 's First United Methodist Church. Whatfollows is an excerpted version of her speech at that event. I'd like to begin by explaining to you a bit about what an interview with the Immigration and Naturalization Service is like. In these interviews they were trying to determine whether each refugee would have a chance to come to the United States to apply for political asylum. Augustin, a young man from a small town in Haiti's northern coast, sits across a table, his hands clasped in front of him nervously as he stares at the INS officer sitting across the table in front of him. Augustin well understands that what he says in the next 15-20 minutes could determine the rest of his life. He's been in Guantanamo Bay for two months now and he's anxious for his story to be heard. He knows that he must convince the officer that he has a credible fear of returning to Haiti. If he cannot convince the officer, he will be retumed to Haiti. "May we see your card and bracelet?" He quickly retrieves from his pocket the battered yellow card that bears his misspelled name and a five-digit number that identifies him. This information checks out with the information on his bracelet as well, so after a short interjection we begin the interview. "What was your profession in Haiti?" "I was a student," he says. "I just had two years left to go in school and then I'd be finished." Proudly pulling out a damp, tom copy of his report card from last year, he tells us about his studies and his plans for the future. "But that's all finished now," he says. 'TH neverbe able to finish. There's no school for us in Haiti anymore." "Why did you leave Haiti?" "Oh, it's impossible to live there now. After Aristide left, everything feil apart. They're shooting, burning, killing people, arresting people, beating them up. People are running, hiding. There ' s no life there anymore." "With whom did you live in Haiti?" He explains that he lived with his mother and several siblings in a house. "My mother doesn't know where I am," he says and breaks into tears. I i "She thinks I'm dead. She doesn't even know I got on the boat." He sobs and backs away from the table. "Why did you get on the boat? Had you been in volved in anything that would cause someone to give you problems?" He doesn' t know why they gave him problems. He was never involved in radical politics . He ne ver made any trouble for anybody. "Who gave you problems? You didn'tdo anything to make someone angry at you?" "Well, I loved Aristide very much," he says, explaining how he had helped a campaign for him in his neighborhood. He told about how happy he and his friends were when Aristide was elected and inaugurated; how they were part of the neighborhood community that decorated the area with flags and Aristide posters and designs and decorations; how they had marched in the streets and celebrated Aristide's victory . "We were so hopeful." He smiles. "He was on the side of the young people in Haiti. He promised to do many things for us. That's why they hated us so much. That's why they wanted to kill all of us. They think we're to blame for Aristide becoming president. They want to crush us." "How did they try to crush you?" Shifting around in his chair and looking back and forth and looking around at the other prescreening tables in the tent surrounding us, he starts to explain. In the weeks following the coup there was shooting every night in his town. But the people in his neighborhood had decided to stay around and hide in their homes there and wait for Aristide to come back. But then the military started coming to their area. They burned one of the houses down. They walked through the streets shouting threats. They beat people brutally for being caught ou t af ter dusk. Augustin's older brother was arrested one evening while listening to the radio with two of his friends and was never seen again. Other young people in the area started disappearing. Their families had no idea what happened to them. Then one of Augustin's friends, a classmate who was a leader in their neighborhood, was shot in the head while sitting on the porch outside his home. "When I saw his body that's when I decided to leave," Augustin explains. "I knew if I didn't they were going to kill me too. So I ran and ran." He hid for several days in the mountains above the town, and then he met up with some others who had also fled the town, and decided to try to go to the United States. "Yeah, we were scared to get in the boat," he says, "but we were more scared of staying in Haiti." "Well, why did they kill your friend and arrest your cousin?" "I don't know why," Augustin replies. "They had never done anything wrong." "Would you be scared to return to Haiti?" "Oh, I'll never go back there. No, I can 't. They'llkillme." "Thank you. You can go sit under the tent at the edge of the row now." Kouri pou la pli tombe lan rivy'e. This is a Haitian proverb that means "Run to dodge the rain and fall into the river." I think that this Haitian proverb expresses well the experience of many of the over 17,000 Haitians who have taken to the small, tiny, rickety boats and fled from every corner of the Haitian shores trying to make it to the United States. Their desperate search for temporary refuge in the U.S. has plunged many of them into still more peril. Although many Haitians, possibly hundreds, died in the sea, most of them were picked up after a few days by U.S. Coast Guard cutters. The refugees are immediately searched as they board cutters by personnel dressed in uniforms, which include latex glo ves and often times surgical masks. They wonder, "Is this our welcome into freedom?" They are told they will not be allowed to go to the United States, but they will have a chance to apply for a "political refugee" status; that most of them will eventually be sent back to Haiti; and that they are now being taken to a place called Guantanamo. Once the cutter arrivés at the naval base, the refugees, who are exhausted, hungry, disoriented, and often ill and seasick, are unloaded. They are searched again and given a brief medical examination, an ID card and bracelet, a blanket, some other necessities, and possibly a change of clothes and shoes. Often their own clothes are confiscated. They are assigned to one of the tents in a section of the camp. The McCullough Airfïeld, where the Haitian refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay is located, is a hot, desolate, dry, flat piece of land at the corner of Guantanamo Bay. A sea of army green tents covers this area of the base. They are arranged in long rows and sections, each section separated from the others by endless spools of barbed wire. It's here that Augustin and thousands of other Haitians have waited, some for many weeks, not knowing when or where they will be sent next and not hearing anything from the people back home. Many of them don' t know if their families are hungry, if they're in hiding. if they'redead, if they're in prison, or perhaps if they're in Guantanamo, behind another section of barbed wire. If he was not so fearful of returning to Haiti, Augustin told me he would have gotten away from this place as soon as he could. "I really can't complain," he says, ""they give me three meáis a day. But I've never eaten my meals with less dignity, even when I was eating one meal a day." I spoke with many of the refugees who begged me to convince immigration to give them an interview. When I checked on their cases I found out that many of them had been '"screened out" already [denied refugee status and ordered sent back to Haiti]. They hadn't even realized that they had been screened at all. A lot of these people had spoken with immigration officers while they were stillon thecutters. Many of these cutter interviews consisted of little more than getting, often inaccurately, the refugees' biographical information, sometimes with interpreters or officers screaming at the refugee, calling them liars, telling them they should go back to Haiti. Thousands of refugees were screened out through this process. After the Coast Guard forcibly repatriated over 500 refugees last November 18th and 19th there was a big uproar. Through a series of political and judicial maneuvers, the forced repatriations were banned for a while. One of the judges in Florida mandated that the INS improve its pre-screening process. It was as part of this reform and the interviewing process that I and about 16-18 other Creóle language specialists went to Guantanamo. Still, even after all the reforms were made, there were many problems with the interviews. There was very little privacy. We interviewed people in army tents which were divided into four sections, separated by stacks of army cots. The refugees could see and hear other interviews going on at the same time. The disorganization and incompetence of the INS was overwhelming. There were many people who had been in Guantanamo for two or three months, whose names were not even recorded anywhere. In January, the INS began a record check process to try to find all of these "'lost people" and to clarify who was "'screened in" [not denied refugee status and not sent back to Haiti] and who was '"screened out." Despite the fact that the "screened in" rates from the interviews went up dramatically after the reforms were implemented - many days when I was in Guantanamo the rate of acceptance into the United States was 75-90% - still the overall approval rate remains about 30%. In fact, during my time there we were told repeatedly by the administrators that Washington was very concerned about this dramatic increase in "screen in" rates. I asked an INS lawyer why the INS has had such a history of hostile policies toward Haitian boat people, and why there's such a struggle to keep these people out. He said: "'Well, it's clear, isn't it? They're poor, they're uneducated and they're Black." The INS and the State Department and the Bush administration continue to insist that the majority of these people are economie refugees, that they do not deserve protection in the United States and that they are in no real danger upon being sent back to Haiti. Around 10,000 people have now been sent back to Haiti. Everything that I saw and heard in Guantanamo taught me that what's being done to these folks is in many cases criminal.