Six months after the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, refugee advocates in Florida and around the country continue to ask themselves how defenders of justice should respond to the incarceration of a group of Haitian earthquake survivors for doing nothing more than following orders from American military personnel.In the days following the devastating earthquake, Haitians found themselves at Port-au-Prince’s airport for a variety of reasons. Some were sent there by emergency medical responders in hope of evacuation for further care. Some wanted to help US Marines and others handling incoming supplies, or came looking for basic necessities to sustain themselves and their families. Some, like 18-year-old Eventz Jean-Baptiste, believed they would starve if they remained in the country and were in desperate search of a means of escape.Among the many Haitians ushered by Americans onto military transport planes in those first chaotic days were a number of individuals with no claim to legal entry into the US. While our country’s immigration laws are notoriously complex, they are far more accessible and understandable to Marines and other officials clearing people for evacuation than to traumatized Haitians. Nonetheless, those officials who exercised complete control over access to flights put urgent need before immigration guidelines in clearing Haitians for travel.If sending injured and shell-shocked undocumented Haitians to Florida on military planes was a mistake, justice would dictate that those responsible for the mistake—those who directed individuals onto the planes—should bear the repercussions. Instead, upon arrival in the US, numerous Haitian earthquake survivors found themselves immediately shuttled into the immigration detention system, charged with being deportable and denied access to even basic mental health services.The New York Times reported on the shock and dismay experienced by Haitians, and their families, who found themselves in immigration detention after what most thought, understandably, was a legal passage to the US. Virgile Ulysse, for example, uncle of two of the detainees, described his nephew crying to him on the phone, and bemoaned the fact that
[e]very time I called immigration, they told me they will release them in two or three weeks, and now it’s almost three months . . . it’s very terrible.
It is understandable that the US government does not want to treat the airlifted Haitians in a way that induces large numbers of Haitians who are receiving some international assistance in their homeland to risk their lives in the hope of achieving a new life in the US. In the 1990s, when numerous refugees headed to the US in rickety craft fleeing widespread Haitian civil unrest, many perished on the open seas. In hope of avoiding a similar mass exodus and deaths, US law is providing temporary legal protection only to Haitians who were in the US as of the date of the earthquake, not to Haitians who flee thereafter.At the same time, the situation of individuals who were as good as ordered to the US by Marines is uniquely compelling. As Americans we can no doubt all recall the horrifying images from post-Katrina New Orleans of people in frantic survival mode, trying to escape by waiving at planes from rooftops or floating on makeshift rafts. As witnessed firsthand by the co-author of this post, Dr. Chida, the destruction in Haiti is exponentially more severe than was the aftermath of Katrina, and nearly five months later Haitians remain very much in survival mode themselves. Many people are still living in tents or on the streets, for example, which leads to widespread instances of heat stroke and other serious exposure-related illness. Those who would not condone the neglect or disparagement of New Orleans residents in the wake of disaster there must now react with compassion and understanding to the circumstances in which Haitian survivors have found themselves as a result of their parallel desperation.For the airlifted Haitians, moreover, detention in prison-like detention centers is not the only alternative, and far from the best one. Research undertaken in 2003 by PHR and the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture showed that detention harms the mental and physical health and well-being of all immigrants, but particularly the health of those who have come to this country after enduring significant physical and psychological trauma. The longer individuals in the PHR/Bellevue study were in detention, the worse were the symptoms they displayed of serious anxiety, depression and PTSD. Imagine, with this fact in mind, how terrifying it was for individuals who had just survived the horror of the earthquake—many of whom were trapped in collapsed buildings themselves, or witnessed the deaths of loved ones—to be imprisoned upon arrival, shut up inside vast buildings with no way out.Worse yet, surviving the earthquake was just one of the many traumas these people confronted: some left behind equally needy younger siblings for whom they are responsible; one suffered a miscarriage; and some of the detained survivors are asylum seekers who have endured severe domestic abuse. Members of PHR’s Asylum Network, including the co-author of this post, are providing forensic exams in support of these individuals’ requests for safe haven.As of last month, most of the survivors who were the subject of the New York Times’ reporting have finally been freed from detention under safeguards to ensure that they continue to respond to immigration authorities. Nonetheless, there remains no justification for the nearly three months of incarceration they suffered at significant cost to the US government, as the Administration has for the foreseeable future suspended deportations of Haitians and cannot hold individuals in civil immigration detention indefinitely, with no immediate prospect of return. The timing of actions, moreover, creates significant suspicion that only bad publicity finally brought about their release.Noncitizens who have not committed a crime should not be subjected to treatment like criminals under any circumstances, most of all where, like these Haitians, they arrived in the US in a time of great confusion and are medically and psychologically vulnerable.US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must take better advantage of the laws and regulations that allow, or even encourage, the agency to release on parole, bond, or other safeguards people like these survivors who pose no threat to the community. For the minority for whom release is inappropriate, ICE must develop and ensure the timely and routine use of secure alternatives to detention that provide the support and assistance that refugees need in order recover and thrive while their immigration status is worked out.