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Haitians worry as U.S. plans to resume deportations

WASHINGTON » The Obama administration has been quietly moving to resume deportations of Haitians for the first time since the earthquake last January. But in New York’s Haitian diaspora, the reaction has been far from muted, including frustration and fear among immigrants and anger from their advocates, who say that an influx of deportees will only add to the country’s woes.

Haiti is racked today by a cholera epidemic and political turmoil, as well as the tortuously slow reconstruction.

"I don’t think Haiti can handle more challenges than what it has right now," said Mathieu Eugene, a Haitian-American member of the New York City Council. "The earthquake, the cholera, the election — everything’s upside down in Haiti."

Federal officials suspended deportations to Haiti immediately after the Jan. 12 earthquake. In addition, a special immigration status, sometimes granted to foreigners who are unable to return safely to their home countries because of armed conflict or natural disasters, was extended to Haitians in the United States, allowing them to remain temporarily and work. Many Haitians, including some with criminal convictions, were also released from detention centers across the country.

But in recent weeks, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, has begun rounding up Haitian immigrants again, including some who had been released earlier this year, immigration lawyers said. On Dec. 10, the agency disclosed, in response to questions from The Associated Press, that it would resume deportations by mid-January.

Immigration officials said they would deport only Haitians who had been convicted of crimes and had finished serving their sentences.

Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement last week that the agency was deciding whom to deport in a manner "consistent with our domestic immigration enforcement priorities," but did not elaborate. The Obama administration has said it is focusing immigration enforcement efforts on catching and deporting immigrants who have been convicted of the most serious crimes or who pose a threat to national security.

Haitians who have been granted the special immigration status, known as temporary protected status, will continue to be shielded from deportation, officials said. The protection was granted for 18 months and is set to expire in mid-July; Haitians who have committed felonies or at least two misdemeanors were not eligible for the program.

Immigration officials did not say how many people they planned to send back to Haiti when deportations resume next month, but they revealed last week that 351 Haitians were in detention.

Eugene and other Haitian community leaders in New York said that despite the limits of the government’s plan, the city’s Haitians were bracing for a resumption of wider deportations.

"The people in the community are worried because they don’t know what the next target population is going to be," Eugene said.

Ricot Dupuy, the manager of Radio Soleil, a Creole-language station in Flatbush, Brooklyn, said he had been "flooded with calls" about the plans for deportations.

Immigration officials would not say when they planned to resume deportations of noncriminals. The Haitian government has apparently not commented on Washington’s decision to resume deportations. The consul general in New York did not respond to phone messages, and the Haitian Embassy did not respond to calls and e-mails.

Nearly a year after the quake, an estimated 1.3 million Haitians are still displaced from their homes. The cholera outbreak has killed more than 2,500 people and hospitalized 58,000 more, according to the Haitian government. And disputes over the preliminary results of the presidential election last month have escalated into violence.

Advocacy groups have been lobbying the Obama administration to postpone the deportations. The Center for Constitutional Rights, based in New York, wrote President Barack Obama to say that their resumption would endanger the deportees’ lives. The Haitian government often detains criminals deported from abroad, the organization said; because cholera is quickly spreading through that country’s detention system, the policy "would end up being a death sentence for many."

An official of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the State Department had been working with Haitian officials "to ensure that the resumption of removals is conducted in a safe, humane manner with minimal disruption to ongoing rebuilding efforts."

Among those who have been rounded up in the past several weeks is a 42-year-old odd-jobs man who was detained last week by immigration officials in Manhattan and was being held on Friday in a jail in Hudson County, N.J., said his lawyer, Rachel Salazar, who asked that her client’s name be withheld because she did not want to jeopardize his case.

The man, who immigrated to the United States as a legal permanent resident in 1990 and has a 5-year-old child, was last detained in February because of three past felony convictions, including for assault, petty larceny and attempted robbery, for which he had served time. But he was released in May, during the moratorium on deportations, Salazar said.

The detainee said he was being held with about 40 other Haitians, the lawyer said, and he had not been told when the government planned to deport him.


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