In Haiti, U.S. deportees face illegal detentions and grave health risks

The Obama administration continues to deport Haitians although many are jailed and risk cholera exposure upon arrival.

Ricardo Lisade waits to be fingerprinted on a bus at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti the morning of his arrival on Sep. 13, 2011. Jacob Kushner/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

About this story

Wisconsin native Jacob Kushner reported this story in Haiti and Florida. He produced this story for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, with additional reporting funded by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, where he formerly worked as an intern. His research was supported by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Investigative News Network. To learn more about this project, and the collaborative efforts that made it possible, click here.

Video: Samuel Durand’s story

Click the photo to see Samuel Durand, a Haitian immigrant, tell his story.


Map: A 2,000-mile journey

View Wisconsin and Haiti in a larger map

By Jacob Kushner

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The United States this year has deported more than 250 Haitians, half of whom were jailed without charges in facilities so filthy they pose life-threatening health risks.

Some Haitians faced lengthy confinement in U.S. immigration facilities before the deportations. Officials held Chicago resident Ricardo Lisade in a Kenosha, Wis. detention center for five months before deporting him, and Haitian authorities then placed him on probation without charging him with a crime.

An investigation by the nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found evidence that the Obama administration has not followed its own policy of seeking alternatives to deportation when there are serious medical and humanitarian concerns.

One deportee who arrived in April suffered from asthma, hypertension, diabetes, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and head trauma, among other ailments. That same month, the U.S. government deported a mentally ill immigrant whose psychiatric medications were lost by Haitian authorities after his first day in jail.

“What’s distinct about the situation in Haiti is that, unlike in other countries, people are immediately jailed, and the conditions in Haitian jails are condemned universally for violating human rights,” said Rebecca Sharpless, director of the University of Miami Law School Immigration Clinic, which helps immigrants appeal deportation orders.

The health risks for incarcerated deportees have increased significantly since October 2010, the beginning of a cholera outbreak that has infected more than 470,000 people and killed 6,500, including some prisoners.

International health experts say deportees in Haiti’s jails are at risk of contracting cholera, which can spread rapidly in overcrowded cells that lack clean water, soap and waste disposal. Once exposed to cholera, victims can die in less than 24 hours. One deportee has already died — two days after he was released from detention in a Haitian jail cell where he became stricken with cholera-like symptoms.

Haitian authorities told FCIR that they place approximately half of all deportees in jails to monitor what they term “serious criminals” — a largely arbitrary determination.

These detentions, which have lasted as long as 11 days, have occurred although the Haitian constitution bans the detention of anyone for more than 48 hours without appearing before a judge, and a United Nations treaty states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”

‘Crisis has not gone away’

One day after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake destroyed much of Haiti’s capital, the U.S. government suspended deportations. Since then, the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an independent initiative of the Organization of American States mandated to promote and protect human rights among member nations, have lobbied countries against deportations due to worsening conditions in Haiti.

“The crisis has not gone away,” said Michel Forst, the U.N. independent expert on human rights, appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council to examine and report on conditions in Haiti. “The most important help the international community can give to Haiti is to suspend the forced return of Haitians.”

Still, the Department of Homeland Security resumed deportations to Haiti on Jan. 20 —the same day the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning urging Americans to avoid Haiti due to health risks and lawlessness.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said deportations to Haiti resumed because a U.S. Supreme Court decision required detainees to be released after 180 days. That requirement, they said, would have placed“some detained Haitian nationals with significant criminal records into U.S. communities, which in turn poses a significant threat to the American public.”

But FCIR found at least three deportees arriving in August and September were convicted of non-violent drug offenses, and three-quarters of all Haitian deportees in recent years had no criminal convictions at all, according to immigration records.

“The hypocrisy is stunning,” Sharpless said. “U.S. officials have known for a long time that it’s dangerous to send people back to jail in Haiti. They also knew that the cholera outbreak raised the stakes even higher because cholera and Haitian jails are a deadly combination. Yet they decided to resume deportations anyway.”

Held in Wisconsin

When U.S. immigration officials finally placed Chicago immigrant Lisade on a deportation flight to Haiti in September, he was eager to be released after spending most of the previous 17 months in immigration detention centers in Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky.

Lisade, 33, who was brought to the United States from Haiti at age 8 as a legal resident, amassed a criminal record in the Midwest that included a 1994 conviction for armed robbery and home invasion, a 1999 residential burglary, and a 2007 domestic violence conviction.

Ricardo Lisade, 33, was deported to Haiti in September after spending 17 months in and out of immigration detention centers in Wisconsin and other states. Jacob Kushner/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

But in March 2010, after completing a prison sentence, Lisade was surprised that instead of being allowed to return to his family in Chicago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials took him into custody. He was confined in a section of Kenosha County Jail reserved for ICE detainees, from which an immigration judge ordered Lisade deported to Haiti two months later.

Because the U.S. had temporarily stopped deporting people to Haiti due to the conditions after the January 2010 earthquake, Lisade spent the next five months in that Kenosha jail.

Immigration authorities released Lisade on extended supervision in August 2010 because a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling forbids ICE from detaining immigrants with final orders of removal for more than six months in most cases.

In December 2010, Lisade was taken back into custody on the premise that his deportation to Haiti was imminent. On Jan. 20, ICE sent the first flight of deportees to Haiti since the earthquake. But Lisade would spend an additional eight and a half months in a Kentucky immigration center before his time came.

Key details of his case were confirmed for this report by an attorney with the nonprofit National Immigrant Justice Center in Illinois.

An unexpected homecoming

After officials finally deported Lisade to Haiti on Sept. 13, he was surprised when Haitian authorities placed him on 18 months of probation — even though he was not charged with a crime in Haiti. The probation requires Lisade to report weekly to a judicial police station to sign his name, and forbids him from obtaining a passport, visa or other travel documents until he successfully completes the period.

A flight carrying deportees from a Louisiana detention center arrives at Toussaint Louverture airport in Port-au-Prince on Sept. 13, 2011. Jacob Kushner/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Some deportees have no other form of identification in Haiti, meaning they cannot receive wire transfers from their family in the United States and risk being apprehended by Haitian police who routinely stop people and demand such identification. At the time he was interviewed, Lisade said he did not have any Haitian ID.

“I haven’t been on probation since I was a juvenile,” Lisade said the morning he arrived at the airport in Port-au-Prince. “Now I have to do another probation for a country where I never committed a crime? A country I left when I was eight years old? That doesn’t make no sense at all.”

The day of Lisade’s arrival, another deportee, longtime Chicago resident Samuel Durand, learned he would be immediately placed in “administrative detention” — meaning a Port-au-Prince jail.

Durand said he moved to the United States in 1996 with his mother and five siblings to join their father, a U.S. citizen and longtime Chicago cab driver. He grew up playing soccer in the Oak Park neighborhood West of Chicago and graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1999.

WATCH VIDEO: Samuel Durand’s story

On Dec. 14, 2006, Durand violently confronted a man he says scratched his car, and he was arrested later that day – one of about 20 times he was arrested in the United States, court records show.

Durand eventually was convicted of robbery, battery and marijuana manufacturing and delivery, according to court records. He was sentenced to four years in prison and served two before being ordered deported to Haiti due to his felony conviction and because his 10-year legal residence had expired.

“It is a shock to me because the country is not functioning … and the U.S. government is still sending people here,” Durand said.

But the bigger shock came when he arrived in Haiti expecting freedom, only to be placed in a 20-by-10 foot cell along with three other deportees and various Haitian prisoners.

“The holding cell holding like 15, 17 people in that little cell,” Durand said. “Ain’t nowhere to sleep, people sleeping on top of other people—the jail condition is not good at all.”

Dr. John May, president of Health Through Walls, a North Miami nonprofit organization that works to improve jail conditions in foreign nations, travels frequently to Haiti. He visited the facility where Durand was held one week before his arrival.

“This is what we see everywhere,” May said. “Tuberculosis would thrive in this environment, certainly skin conditions like scabies, which we see often. And most seriously and concerning in Haiti recently is cholera, and it would just take one person with cholera here and it would quickly spread to the others.”

Because there is no waste disposal, a shower stall and toilet fill with garbage and urine in the Pettionville jail cell on a day when five deportees were held there. Jacob Kushner/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Cholera is spread primarily through feces and can result in severe vomiting and diarrhea. “Any situation that doesn’t have a lot of good hygiene is a great setting for the spread of cholera, which is what we have here,” May said.

In January, 34-year-old deportee Wildrick Guerrier, whose Florida criminal record included convictions for battery and possession of a firearm, died from what doctors described as cholera-like symptoms two days after being released from the holding cell where he became ill — one of the same cells where deportees are incarcerated today.

When asked if detaining deportees in such conditions poses life-threatening health risks, Chairman of Haiti’s Commission in Charge of Deportees Pierre Wilner Casseus said only that deportees exhibiting symptoms of illness are released immediately.

“We don’t give them any medicine,” Casseus said, adding that the International Organization for Migration, which works to improve living conditions in Haiti, attends to the health needs of jailed deportees. But an IOM spokesperson said Haitian officials do not allow access to the deportees once they are in jail.

Medical care denied

Sometimes, jailhouse conditions in Haiti complicate existing medical problems, as they did for Jeff Dorne, a longtime Boston resident from Haiti diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Dorne served six years in prison for a 2003 rape conviction in New Jersey, after which he was ordered deported by an immigration judge because his felony violated his legal permanent residency, which had also expired while he was in prison.

An Aug. 12, 2011, photo of the Petionville jail cell where some deportees are detained upon their arrival in Haiti. Jacob Kushner/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

After he was deported in April, Haitian authorities immediately imprisoned him — without charge — in the same Petionville cell where Durand would later be held. Dorne’s illness required him to take four medications daily, so U.S. immigration officers sent a one-month supply of those prescriptions to Haiti’s judicial police. But jails in Haiti do not have medical personnel and Haitian police are not trained in basic medical care.

On Dorne’s first night in the Petionville jail in Port-au-Prince, the municipal police gave him the medication, and then, according to Dorne, held onto — or lost — the remaining pills.

“The prescription said every night. So Saturday night I asked the chief officer, ‘Can you get my medication for me?’ ” Dorne said. “They told me they can’t find it. Every day I asked them for it. After two, three days, I stopped asking.”

During his next few days in jail, Dorne said some of the symptoms that had subsided after he began psychiatric treatment in the New Jersey prison returned.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “My hands started shaking.”

May, the doctor at Health Through Walls, said mentally ill inmates face grave risks because they are often unable to negotiate for themselves.

“A person who requires antipsychotic medications … could rapidly deteriorate without having them,” May said.

The police officer in charge of that jail said he was not familiar with Dorne’s case.

An FCIR review of statements made by federal immigration authorities after deportations resumed in January found evidence that ICE sometimes fails to abide by its policy involving Haitians with medical problems. An April 1 ICE memorandum explaining the decision to resume deportations said alternatives would be considered for medical and humanitarian purposes. Yet Haitians with documented medical problems continue to be deported from the United States.

The U.S. government deported Dorne, for example, three days after the Department of Justice documented his paranoid schizophrenia and the four psychiatric medications prescribed to him.

Ralph Celestin, 51, was deported to Haiti in April even though he suffers from numerous health ailements including asthma, diabetes and hypertension. He has not been convicted of a crime in the United States since a burglary convction in 1978. Jacob Kushner/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Deportee Ralph Celestin, 51, suffered from so many health problems that a list of his conditions and medications filled six pages of a New Jersey prison document. Despite his having asthma, hypertension and diabetes, ICE deported Celestin to Haiti on the same April flight as Dorne.

Immigration attorneys in the United States are fighting deportations of individual Haitian clients under the 1984 U.N. Convention Against Torture, which forbids governments from deporting people to countries where they will undergo “severe pain or suffering.” In April, a mentally ill Haitian immigrant in Miami had his deportation deferred on the grounds that the conditions in a Haitian jail could meet that standard in his case.

Deportee detentions in Haiti are well-documented, dating back to at least 1998, when deportees were placed in the dangerous National Penitentiary sometimes for months. In some instances, deportees bribed their way out of jail, though FCIR found no evidence that suggested corruption influences deportee detentions today.

The 2010 earthquake destroyed all but one of the government ministry buildings and killed an estimated 20 to 40 percent of civil servants. Today, Haiti’s judicial police must process hundreds of U.S. deportees annually with drastically fewer resources. Each time a deportee flight arrives, for example, routine identification procedures at the judicial police station stop, so the only functioning digital camera can be used to photograph the deportees.

Freedom roulette

On the morning a deportee flight arrives in Haiti, members of Haiti’s Commission in Charge of Deportees arrive at the airport grounds. They mingle with Haitian police officers, U.S. immigration officials and deportee advocates.

The commission includes representatives from four government ministries and the independent Office of Citizen Protection. Once the deportees have been transferred to the judicial police holding station, commission members decide who will go free — and who will be incarcerated.

The process is largely ad hoc. No written policy exists, and there is little consensus among members of the deportee commission about the primary purpose of the detentions.

Secretary of State for the Ministry of Public Security Aramick Louis said detentions are meant for deportees’ protection during the “vulnerable” transition to Haiti.

Frederic Leconte, the commissioner of Haiti’s judicial police, said the detentions allow the state time to understand each individual’s situation — even though the U.S. government provides detailed files on each deportee two weeks prior to arrival, and FCIR was unable to document any instances in which detained deportees were interviewed or even observed directly by officials.

Head of Haiti's Citizen Protection ministry, Florence Elie serves as an adjunct member of the Haitian comission that decides which arriving deportees will be freed and which will be detained. Jacob Kushner/Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Haiti’s Citizen Protection chief Florence Elie, an adjunct member of the commission, said the detentions are meant to allow authorities “to get to know” the deportees.

“Whenever I have to make a choice between the welfare of the community against the welfare of one person, I have to be very careful,” Elie said. “These people who come to Haiti are a threat to the society.”

But Haitian law does not allow someone to be jailed based on the possibility he may commit a crime in the future. “This is what I fought against,” said Privat Precil, the director general of Haiti’s Ministry of Justice from 2002 to 2004. “It is just a police policy that is not legal under Haitian law.”

Length of the deportee detentions varies. The deportees who were incarcerated after arriving Aug. 9 spent seven days in jail. After FCIR questioned government officials about the length of the detentions later that month, the head of the deportee commission was replaced, and deportees on the following flight were released after three days – still plenty of time to risk exposure to cholera.

According to an April memo from ICE, deportees are prioritized “through the consideration of adverse factors, such as the severity, number of convictions, and dates since convictions, and balance these against any equities of the Haitian national, such as duration of residence in the United States, family ties, or significant medical issues.”

Barbara Gonzalez, ICE’s press secretary, said in an email that the agency would “prioritize those who pose the greatest threat to the community.”

But an FCIR review of ICE data shows the agency deported at least 2,684 non-criminal immigrants to Haiti from 2007 to 2010, and FCIR found three deportees who arrived in August and September whose criminal records included only non-violent offenses.

The Department of Homeland Security, the State Department and the White House did not respond to questions about FCIR’s findings.

Total deportations have risen over the past decade, with the Obama administration deporting 387,000 immigrants worldwide in the year beginning October 2009 — more than twice the number deported under President George W. Bush at the beginning of his term in the year starting October 2001.

As recently as 2008, 74 percent of all Haitian deportees did not have criminal convictions, according to ICE data. In the three months leading up to Haiti’s earthquake, 67 percent of deportees were non-criminals.

In August, Gonzalez was asked to provide a list of post-earthquake deportees’ convictions to support the agency’s claim that those deported since the earthquake would have posed a threat if released in the United States. After nearly four weeks without a response, a follow-up elicited this answer from Gonzalez: “We have nothing to add. Regards.”

Deportations came as surprise

Whatever conditions the United States used to justify halting deportations to Haiti had not changed by the time ICE sent the first flight in January, said Laura Raymond, international human rights associate for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting constitutional rights.

“You look at what they said right after the earthquake when they suspended deportations; it cited conditions. The only thing that changed in Haiti between then and when they reinstated deportations was a cholera epidemic — things got much worse,” Raymond said.

Today, approximately 587,000 Haitians live in the United States. Although only 426 of them are estimated to live in Wisconsin, an additional 4,439 reside in Illinois, giving it the eighth largest Haitian population in the country.

For Bernadette Durand, the September deportation of her son, Samuel Durand, is nothing short of tragedy.

“Haiti isn’t good for people to live. They have sicknesses, cholera. People who leave here have gone back and gotten sick from the water. All bad things happen in Haiti,” Bernadette, 56, said in Creole from her Chicago home. She said her husband died in 2002 from an unknown cause, leaving her job as a hotel maid as the family’s primary source of income. She also cares part-time for her son’s five children.

“They’re growing up without their daddy,” said Durand’s brother, Jean Marc, 34. “He was a good father. He had a part-time job. Now sometime they cry that they want to see their daddy. It’s painful.”

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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