A group of 10 Haitian migrants were found and rescued last month after being stranded for days on Desecheo, an uninhabited Puerto Rican island. Now, the migrants have relocated to different cities across the U.S., some reuniting with friends and family as they sift through the confusion and frustration of the current immigration processing system.
For one of the migrants, a 33-year-old woman who has requested to remain anonymous, there was no other choice but to risk her life in the Caribbean Sea. She said gang members had set her house on fire, kidnapped her sister, and threatened to kill her.
“Our life was in danger,” she said. “If they found me, they were going to kidnap and kill me. I had to hide. That’s why I chose to save myself and try to go elsewhere.”
After gang members kidnapped her sister, they left messages saying they would kill her if she was found.
“Gang members have taken over the country, and nobody can live in peace,” she said. “If I was to return back to Haiti, it would be setting my death bed.”
For Elmondo, another migrant who was on the boat, the situation in Haiti was so dire, he felt the only option was to board a boat in search of someplace better. His house was also set on fire by the same gang, and he was afraid for his life. According to Elmondo, his family was targeted because of their involvement in politics in the country. He sold his bicycle to be able to afford the escape from Haiti. The journey lasted a week, and once they landed on Desecheo, they survived for three days before a woman found them, a Customs Border Protection helicopter arrived, and they were taken to Ramey Border Patrol Station, where they were detained in the station for three days.
“I don’t have any place to return back home to,” Elmondo said in a press conference. “I can’t go back because the bandits will put my life in danger and assassinate me. I had an opportunity to come to the States, so I took it.”
The week-long journey was difficult. The 33-year-old woman became dizzy, and others became sick with no food or medicine.
“Catherine saved us when she came and brought us food,” she said, referring to abolition advocate Catherine Edgerton, who works with the crew that found the migrants.
After three days, the migrants were put in a taxi and sent to San Mateo Church in Santurce, where Haitian priest Father Olin Pierre-Louis is known for providing support to Haitian refugees. Seven of them were assisted in booking flights to stay with friends and family in other cities in the mainland U.S., and three stayed with Pierre-Louis.
Since arriving in the U.S., the migrants have been overwhelmed with confusion about the immigration process. In the package of papers they initially received from CBP upon being released, there was a notice for everyone to meet with an ICE officer in their respective cities on April 9. The 33-year-old woman is staying with friends in Orlando as she awaits her meeting with an officer, but she is concerned she will eventually be expected to appear before a judge and face deportation. In the document, they were given a list of pro-bono legal services who could potentially represent them. Her friend took her to Catholic Charities in Orlando, but they were told nobody was available to represent them and they would have to wait. No one else in the group has been able to acquire legal representation or meet with an ICE officer.
The immigration system does not provide court-appointed counsel to immigrants facing deportation who are unable to afford a lawyer. Only 37% of all immigrants and 14% of detained immigrants go to court with legal representation, according to a 2016 American Immigration Council study. According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, individuals with counsel are more likely to win their cases and avoid deportation.
The 33-year-old woman arrived at the ICE office in Orlando on the Saturday she was supposed to meet with an ICE officer. The office was closed inexplicably. On Monday, she returned to the office at 6 a.m., only to wait in a line of at least 50 people under the glaring sun for seven hours until they closed the office at 1p.m.
“They don’t treat people well at all,” she said. “The crazy thing is that we have to keep coming until we see someone.”
At 1 p.m., an officer came out and instructed everybody to return the next day for their meeting.
“They don’t care if you were here since last night,” she said. “They just say goodbye, see you the next day. It’s horrible.”
According to Richard Alexandre, an organizer with Houston Haitians United, the group is waiting to receive a new appointment time for a credible fear hearing. Alexandre says one member of the group received an appointment date set for October.
“They absolutely have a credible fear of returning to Haiti,” Alexandre said. “We just want for immigration officials to listen carefully to what these people are saying and do their best to understand what the actual situation is back home in Haiti. We just want our pain to be noticed. We just want our crisis to be noticed.”
As the group continues to attempt meeting with an officer, they hope they will find legal representation for their eventual court hearing and be granted asylum.