By Jacob Kushner, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The United States has deported more than 250 Haitians since January knowing that one in two will be jailed without charges in facilities so filthy they pose life-threatening health risks.
An investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found 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 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, when a cholera outbreak began that has infected about 470,000 people and killed more than 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 about 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, violate Haitian law and United Nations treaties when deportees have not been charged with crimes in Haiti.
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 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have lobbied countries to halt deportations due to worsening conditions in Haiti.
"The crisis has not gone away," said Michel Forst, the U.N. independent expert on the situation of human rights 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 very 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."
Detention -- an unexpected homecoming
On the morning of Aug. 9, Franco Coby (in photo), a 24-year-old who grew up in Fort Myers, Fla., stepped off a plane at Toussaint Louverture International Airport and into the 96-degree heat of Port-au-Prince. He served nearly two years in a Florida prison for selling cocaine to a police informant, followed by four months in an immigration detention center. Haitian police loaded the 43 deportees on two white buses.
"To me, I'm in a foreign country even though it's my birthplace," said Frantz Fils-Aime, 29, a deportee from New York City who was convicted in 2008 of selling cocaine. "I haven't been here in 15 years. There's a lot I don't know about Haiti."
A thin woman wearing rectangular glasses and a long dress entered one of the buses. Florence Elie, the head of Haiti's Citizen Protection Ministry, explained in Haitian Creole that deportees have to report weekly to a judicial police station as part of an 18-month probation -- though no Haitian law allows for such preemptive supervision. She also addressed a rumor that circulated among the deportees: Some will be briefly put in "administrative retention," meaning jail.
On the other bus, Elie's assistant, Jean-Claude Prevost, wearing a blue polo shirt and jeans, was more direct.
"To be honest with you, no sugarcoating or nothing, some of you guys are going to go home today; some of you are not."
One deportee, who asked not to be named and said he lived in New York City for 38 years, became upset: "When they lock you up for five days, is you drinking clean water? So we ain't gonna be catching no choler-ia or no crap?" he said, mispronouncing the name of the deadly disease that many deportees fear.
"Is it clean?" Prevost replied. "You want me to lie to you and tell you it's clean? It's not clean."
Around 3 p.m., the buses drove to Haiti's judicial police headquarters, where half of the deportees were released to family members. Coby was not among them.
A week in a Haitian jail
The next morning, Coby was at the Commissariat Petionville, a jail across the street from one of Haiti's 900 post-earthquake displacement camps.
Haitian police placed Coby in one of the jail's two cramped 20-by-10-foot cells, along with Filis-Aime, another New Yorker and deportees from Georgia and Michigan. Over the next seven days, they shared the cell with two to 15 others. At times, there wasn't enough space for everyone to sleep on the bare concrete. A strong odor of feces wafted from the broken toilet in the back.
"I got bumps growing all over my skin, man. I don't know if I'm allergic to something or what," Coby said, after his first night in jail. "I been feeling sick; my stomach is tearing me up. Today I ate some rice, and it ran straight through me."
Dr. John May, president of Health Through Walls, a North Miami nonprofit that works to improve jail conditions in foreign nations, travels frequently to Haiti. He visited the facility where Coby and the other deportees were held four weeks after their release.
"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."
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 such conditions pose life-threatening health risks, Commission in Charge of Deportees Chairman 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 spokesman 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 diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Dorne served six years in prison for a 2003 rape conviction in New Jersey.
Haitian authorities immediately imprisoned him -- without charge -- in the same cell where Coby later would be held. Dorne's illness required him to take four medications daily, so U.S. immigration officers sent a one-month supply of the 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, 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."
Dr. John May 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 discrepancies between the agency's stated policy and its practice involving Haitians with medical problems.
An April 1 ICE memorandum explaining the decision to resume deportations said alternatives would be considered in cases where medical and humanitarian concerns exist. 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.
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 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.
On the morning a deportee flight arrives, 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. Aramick Louis, secretary of state for public security, 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.
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 that 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 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.
"They told us they gonna put us in jail for like a day or two. Then they was gonna do some paperwork and we gonna get released," said Coby, who spent seven days in jail. "Well, a day or two came and we were still locked up. Three days came, four days came; we were still locked up. A week came, we still there."
Coby grew up as an illegal immigrant. His mother never told him how he arrived in the United States at age six. He attended Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers and played basketball. About one year after he graduated from high school, he fathered a child.
Coby's first criminal conviction was for driving without a license in 2008, for which he paid a $240 fine. In 2009, he was convicted of cocaine possession with intent to sell, which ultimately led to his deportation.
After serving 24 months in prison, Coby was transferred to immigration custody. Because ICE had stopped deporting Haitians after the earthquake, Coby expected to be released following the typical 180-day limit that ICE may detain someone awaiting deportation. But in January 2011, ICE resumed deportations to Haiti, and Coby was transferred to Louisiana to wait out his final days in the United States.
When he stepped off the plane in Port-au-Prince, Coby saw a country he hadn't known since he was a boy.
"I was expecting freedom in the United States. But then, I realized that I was gonna get deported, so now, second thoughts came in my mind that I'm gonna feel the freedom in a different country. But when I come to this country, I'm still being held. For what? I haven't been to this country, so what did I do? What crime did I commit? What law did I violate?"
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 federal data shows ICE 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.
Today, approximately 587,000 Haitians live in the United States, nearly half of them in Florida. In 2000, immigration officials estimated 76,000 Haitians were in the United States illegally.
Total deportations have risen over the past decade, with the Obama administration deporting 387,000 immigrants in the year beginning October 2009 -- more than twice the number deported under 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."
Resumption of deportations came as a 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 that has petitioned the Obama administration to halt deportations.
"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.
ICE's decision to resume deportations to Haiti one year after the 2010 earthquake surprised many Haitians with orders of removal.
Samuel Lizius, a 25-year-old who grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, came to the United States when he was 8 years old. Lizius was convicted in 2008 of felony cocaine possession. He served a nine-month jail sentence and received parole in January 2010, after which he was transferred to immigration custody and ordered to be removed.
When an immigration officer asked him to confirm the facts of his criminal history and immigration proceedings, Lizius said he signed the form rather than appeal his deportation because he never thought ICE would deport him. At the time, deportations were on hold because of the earthquake.
"My deportation officer explained to me that they're not deporting Haitians. So I believed him, and I signed to get deported, knowing that they're not gonna deport me; they're just gonna release me," Lizius said. "So I signed, knowing that I was gonna get released in the streets -- but I got released out in Haiti."
Lizius was deported on the first post-earthquake flight to Haiti and jailed for 11 days. For now, he spends most of his time in his sister's Port-au-Prince home underneath the flight path of Toussaint Louverture International Airport -- listening to the rumble of planes leaving for the country he called home.
"I had my first love, my first crush in the States. Went to school, kindergarten, middle school high school, college in the States. First job in the States …
"All I know is the States."
(Photo of Franco Coby by Jacob Kushner. To watch a video interview with Samuel Lizius about his deportation, click here. Kushner produced this story for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. His research was supported in part by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Investigative News Network.)