Haitian Immigration Update

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Alcius spends his days in a special wing of the Federal Correctional Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, isolated from the rest of the prison population. He passes his time sitting, watching from the windows of a room that is as small and barren as his life has become. His crime? Alcius is a Haitian refugee - one of 200 held at the Lexington facility.

Deprived of any opportunity to use their skills (in Haiti, Alcius was considered a fine tailor; others are equally skilled), denied reading privileges, lacking many personal items such as toothpaste, shampoo, and a comb, and unable to speak English, Alcius and his 200 companions wait. It is all they can do. Their memories of their families only punctuate their loneliness and their despair.

Alcius is a victim of the Reagan administration's new immigration policy which actively seeks to make life for illegal immigrants so unbearable as to encourage them to return to their native countries. Refugees whose boats manage to evade interception by the Coast Guard enter to the U.S. only to be detained in camps, mostly in Florida. Later they are sent to prisons and military bases throughout the country. One Reagan plan, temporarily derailed by court order, was to intern Haitians in the most inhospitable outposts available, such as Fort Drum on the Canadian border. Present policy keeps refugees separated, in a state of isolation and ignorance. Alcius, like others, is confused and depressed by the fare he's been served in the land of freedom, justice, and opportunity.

Compared to some other refugees, Alcius was fortunate. All of his 240 fellow passengers to the United States survived. And Alcius had relatives in Miami willing to sponsor him. When they came to the refugee center to sign the necessary forms, they were told to return in a few days and Alcius would be released to them. But at midnight, the night before he was to be released, Alcius and 199 other men were awakened, herded into buses and driven to Lexington. Some were later transferred to Montana and West Virginia. In the process, family units and boat groups were systematically separated and dispersed.

Alcius is now fighting a legal battle to join his relatives. He does not understand the intricacies of this battle, only that his attorney is pleading for more time to prepare the case because of difficulties in orchestrating the handful of volunteer interpreters.

To give up and return to Haiti means facing imprisonment and torture in one of Haiti's notorious jails.

Haitian response in the U.S. to the plight of recent refugees has been strong.

Last December, upon hearing that Haitians were passing out during a hunger strike protesting conditions in a Miami detention camp, members of the Haitian community responded violently. They stormed the camp, setting fires and throwing stones and bottles. Some 150 men attempted to break out but most were driven back by police tear gas. A group of Haitians sent an open letter to the U.S. government, pleading for asylum and threatening mass suicide if no decision was reached by Christmas. The suicides did not take place, but the fight continues.

Haitian refugees' attempts at organization have been hampered by the separation of groups and families, language problems, the fear of reprisals against family members who remain in Haiti, and the general suspicion felt by a people who have spent a lifetime living under tyranny. In addition, Haitians are among the world's poorest people; they find it extremely difficult to raise the money needed to organize and to fight legal battles.

Many fewer Haitians (503) than Cubans (36,296), Iranians (7,138), Nicaraguans (4,111), Poles (1,670), or Ethiopians (992) have sought asylum in the U.S. They are a "problem" because they enter illegally and then plead for asylum rather than enter legally (with a tourist or student visa, for example) and then ask to stay.

The "problem" of Haitian immigration is part of a much larger picture: changing patterns of employment and demography in this country, American foreign policy, racism, and the use of public funds. The U.S. birthrate has gone down, and immigration from nonwhite, non-English speaking countries has gone up. This has led to a fear that the U.S. will become a "darker," multi-lingual nation. Haitians are doubly feared: they are black, and they speak Creole or French.

Despite these "problems," many U.S. businesses profit from cheap, illegal immigrant labor. As it is practically impossible to completely close all U.S. borders, those Haitians desperate enough to get into the country will; they will probably find people who will pay them, cheaply. These short-term economic gains (for the U.S.) are thus balanced against the long-term demographic and economic consequences of illegal immigration.

Although Haiti's Duvalier government has one of the worst human rights records in history, the Reagan administration is supporting it against opposition because of its avowedly anti-communist stance.

On January 11, 1982, about 40 Haitian men, sailing from the Turks and Caicos Islands 100 miles north of Haiti, landed on Tortuga Island. The group was led by Bernard Sansaricq, a service station operator from Florida. Sansaricq claimed that his party was the vanguard of a much larger group dedicated to overthrowing the Duvalier government.

Three of the party, who were all captured, died of wounds in jail. Sansaricq has returned to the U.S. in custody. The FBI is currently investigating his legal position.

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