Desperate Voyage : Bedeviled Haitian Boat Lift Resumes

Times Staff Writer

It is 700 miles from Haiti to the Florida shore, and most of the boat people suffer the voyage crowded into sailboats that are no more than splintery hulls. Sometimes the vessels are found drifting in circles, trying to follow the sun.

Other refugees jam into leaky shrimpers, hiding themselves in crates in the dank hold or beneath a mound of bananas. Noise sputters from a single engine while the passengers murmur the voodoo prayers that might make them invisible to patrol boats.

Still others scrape together impossible sums for the people smugglers, paying as much as $2,500 for a plane ticket and a phony passport. Immigration officers in Miami scornfully call the doctored papers "50-yarders," the distance from which they can spot the switched photos.

Moved to Take Chances

No matter what the ordeal, the Haitian exodus--a bedeviled crossing to America from the hemisphere's poorest nation--has started anew. Three years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard's high-seas crackdown near Haiti appeared to choke it off. But desperation has a way of making people take chances.

"We have a saying, that the teeth of the shark are sweeter than the life we leave behind," said the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian activist here.

Last year, 3,005 Haitians--packed into 62 boats--were stopped at sea by the Coast Guard. That is four times the number halted in 1983, and 20 times the total of 1982, according to Coast Guard records.

"Zero safety equipment, no life jackets, a big deal if they have a compass," said Cmdr. James P. Sutherland, who heads the Coast Guard's Haitian Migration Interdiction Operation. "They seem to navigate by luck."

836 Seized on Beaches

At the same time, the number of refugees caught sloshing ashore--often turning up amid the sunbathing residents of oceanfront condominiums--also is rising. In 1984, 836 Haitians were seized on the beaches, nearly double the total for 1982 and 1983 combined.

On Oct. 29, for example, seven Haitians in a battered motorboat arrived at Sailfish Point, a posh resort community in Stuart, 90 miles north of here. They wandered perplexedly amid the country-club setting, thinking they were in Miami and that America indeed was a place of milk and honey.

Security guards soon spotted the refugees. When police searched them, they found only Bibles, toothbrushes and $150.

"Half the time, our mission is search and rescue," said Harold Boyce, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's chief interdiction officer. "By our records, half the sailboats that leave Haiti never make it. No sign of them, ever again."

At Miami International Airport, 666 Haitians--more than any other nationality--were caught last year trying to enter the country with fake documents, according to INS records.

"Honestly, these people are just being ripped off in Haiti," said Luis Santiago, one of the immigration inspectors. "Their passports have glue smudges and hand-punched numbers. Really, they look so bad."

But those caught in this country have a significant edge over those confronted at sea. They get this choice: a free return to Haiti or indefinite detention here.

Most, in fact, choose the latter, preferring even that fragile foothold. They board the bus to the Krome Detention Center, a sun-bleached camp on the edge of the Everglades, full now that travel on the "Haitian Highway" has busied again.

Amid the rows of Army cots in the camp's brightly painted barracks, two kinds of stories prevail about Haiti's despair.

$300 Average Annual Income

One story is of economic hardship in a nation where the average annual income is only $300--and the income in the mountainous countryside still less.

The other is of the dreaded Tontons Macoutes, the murderous and wanton security forces of President-for-Life Jean Claude Duvalier.

For Inerve Montinville, a tall and gaunt 44-year-old farmer near the city of Leogane, it was the Macoutes who forever disturbed his life's simplicity.

Not so long ago, he worried only about his six children, a half-acre plot of land, his few pigs and goats.

Then, during a visit to his sister in Carrefour, he helped a neighbor woman carry her valise to the bus. Her name was Sylvana Francois, and, by Montinville's story--numbly recounted in Creole--this single amiable gesture began a peasant's fearful flight from his birthplace.

Three days later, somebody came to my house and told me Mr. Andre is looking for me. He is an important man who travels a lot. I went to him, and he said I should know about Sylvana, his wife.

She had taken some money, he said, and he can't find her. But I don't know anything; I had only helped her carry the valise. Mr. Andre said I was responsible, that I was holding a bomb lit on both ends and it would blow up. He is very important, Mr. Andre, and I was very frightened.

A few days later, some men came looking for me while I was at the farm. My children did not recognize them, and I decided maybe it is best that I sleep somewhere else.

Three men came back that night. They had machine guns and masks. They demanded I come out, but my wife told them I was not there. They looked beneath the beds, even in the food we keep in the attic. They looked in the mango trees outside. After this, I could not come home.

In 1980 and 1981, when the magnet that is America seemed aimed directly at Caribbean discontent, more than 23,000 Haitians were caught at the Florida shore. INS officials believe that 25,000 more may have slipped in unseen.

Pressures to tighten the border in those hectic years led to an October, 1981, agreement between this nation and Haiti. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter began to patrol the Windward Passage, the narrow sea corridor that separates Haiti from the eastern tip of Cuba.

The effect was immediate--the human stream slowed to a benign trickle. But now the flow seems gradually to be increasing.

"It's a big ocean," Boyce of the INS said matter-of-factly of the difficult interdiction task.

A single Coast Guard ship, even with air reconnaissance, is easily dodged by savvy people smugglers, Sutherland admitted.

Do Business in Spurts

The smugglers, meanwhile, do business in spurts, periodically overlooked by officials in a nation where corruption has never been uncommon.

"I would say there's a tacit approval by some (in the Haitian government)," Sutherland said. "I don't think top government officials are getting big money. But there are some palms being greased."

Besides, there are thousands wanting to bargain for passage to America, even at the cost of all they own. Those who have made the trip say prices vary from $200 to $2,500, and, once here, the Haitians scrimp for dollars to send back to Haiti for those eager to follow.

But if there are precise statistics on those caught trying to come in, there is only guesswork on the number who arrive unnoticed.

"We think about 200 a month," said Jean-Juste, who himself admits paying smugglers to bring in his mother, two brothers and two sisters.

50 to 200 a Week

Leonard E. Rowland, the INS assistant district director for deportation in Miami, said an estimated 50 to 200 Haitians per week were ferried in by smugglers last summer from the Bahamas, often a breath-catching stop in the journey.

"They're likely to arrive anywhere, from Marathon to West Palm Beach," he said. "So how do you patrol it?"

On Dec. 17, a hapless motorboat ran aground along the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a major road linking the mainland to Miami Beach.

Police rounded up five Haitian refugees. Twenty others were quicker to flee. They hailed taxis, disappearing into their new land.

I hid far away in the mountains, in Plaisance. Then I went to Mahotiere in Morne Chandelle. Twice my wife came to see me, but after that friends came because my wife thought she was followed.

I thought maybe I could go home. But the problem never went away. The men asked for me to my children. The men went to my sister's.

I was scared that Mr. Andre would take this so far. What was left for me if they were doing so much to get me? They kept looking, and the problem did not go away.

Perry Rivkind, the INS district director in Miami, is peeved about the many Haitians requesting asylum.

"Asylum is a legitimate need for people escaping political troubles," he said. "It ought to be confined to persecuted people, not a whole country who want a better way of life.

"I often wonder what would happen if 260 million Russians decided they're sick of the Soviet Union and want to come here?"

It is far easier for the INS when the Haitians are stopped at sea. Those refugees, Sutherland said, are routinely asked if they have any fear about returning home. Not one, he insists, has ever requested asylum.

"Most of them look at you in amazement," the commander said. " 'Why should I be afraid,' they ask. 'Haiti is my country!' "

But lawyers for the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami doubt that Coast Guard boarding parties do much to explain the asylum process.

'Don't Know Magic Words'

"Most refugees don't know the magic words to specifically ask for asylum," said Sheila Neville, one of the center's two lawyers. "Besides, there's the fear factor. After all, they're fleeing an authoritarian regime and now they're being questioned by authorities again."

Unlike those stopped at sea, most of the Haitian refugees caught here do eventually request asylum. Many do so in earnest. Others have been coached that this is a way to delay being sent back.

But whatever the motive, few Haitian asylum requests succeed, either with immigration judges or in the complicated series of appellate steps that can take more than two years.

"Typically, the judge decides the applicant has had a personal dispute with the Tontons Macoutes," Neville said. "He will say he feels bad about it, but the dispute does not rise to the level of political persecution."

One day at dawn my friends came and led me me to where they take your picture. Then I went back into hiding. It was time I go to the United States, and my family sold things for money.

Two weeks went by and the people my wife had paid the money came with her to get me. They put the passport in my hands and drove me to the airport.

I was very afraid, and I did not ask about the arrangements.

But all it was, someone pointed at me and I got right on the plane. They had given me some rum to carry, so I looked right. I have a cousin in New York and I had the address of someone who knows him, someone in Miami. This important address I put in my pocket.

These days, INS tries to keep a population of no more than 550 at the Krome Detention Center. Most Haitians who can raise the $500 bond are eventually allowed to leave in about six months as newer refugees assume their space in the barracks.

But release from detention does not mean a welcome to America. Proceedings to return the aliens to Haiti continue. Though deportations have been rare up to now, INS efforts have intensified.

Meanwhile, the refugees attempt to find work, a challenge as formidable as the sea voyage that carried them here.

"In two years, I have had one job," said Jocelyn LaFleur, 35, recently hired to wash dishes in a Miami Beach hotel for $4.95 an hour. "This country is not what I thought it would be."

Most of the refugees move into Little Haiti, the Miami neighborhood where an estimated 35,000 Haitians live. It is a place where restaurants serve plantains and well-spiced goat meat. Nago Shop, the voodoo store, sells love potions in aerosol cans. Mass at Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church is said in Creole.

Reputation Cited

By and large, the refugees are known for being hard-working, honest, peaceful. In 1982, the last time Haitian unemployment was surveyed, the rate was 27%, twice that of the population in general. Crimes by Haitians, on the other hand, are a rarity.

"We have 3,000 inmates, and I don't think any more than 30 have been Haitian at any given time," said Fred Crawford, who runs the Dade County jail.

Five of the top 11 graduating seniors last year at Miami Edison High were Haitian. Drugs and discipline are not student problems. Once the refugees master English, they often find themselves ahead of their American classmates.

"Here, they try to make school fun," said 16-year-old Erigene Belony. "In Haiti, being a student is serious."

Problems in Little Haiti

Little Haiti does have its many problems--overcrowded housing obvious among them. Slumlords partition houses into a half dozen apartments, and families often share the single rooms, taking turns sleeping on a bare mattress.

Many Haitians, desperate for work, rise at 4:30 each morning to catch buses for the bean fields in nearby Florida City. Others have given up Little Haiti completely, following the migrant trail to sugar cane plantations near Lake Okeechobee.

But the deeper troubles come not from poverty but fear. To those here illegally, the simplest incidents can seem to be menacing threats. Every white person could be the immigration man, and even the opening of a bank account requires the exchange of too much information.

"Haitians limp away from accidents on the highway," said one who waded ashore here three years ago. "Better that than wait for the police."

In Miami, they told me this is not my passport. Yes, it is, I said.

The Haitian man, the man talking for the other man in Creole, pressured me to tell the truth. But I decided not to tell them then. They seemed maybe like the Macoutes.

They asked me if I wanted to go back. No, I said. And so I went to Krome, where I was until today, February the 15th. Now I am free to go.

Being here, I think, saved my life. Whatever I find here, this is what will be for me. If I can farm, I will farm. There can be no going back with the problems. I write this to my wife so she knows. Here, I show you.

Inerve Montinville, refugee and asylum seeker, reached into the white plastic garbage bag that held everything he owned--two towels, a copy of the New Testament, two letters to his wife Therese.

"Maybe she can come to the United States," he said.

Surely, there is a boat leaving soon.

Times researcher Lorna Nones assisted with the reporting of this story.

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