Asylum Eludes Most Haitian Migrants : Persecution: Many risk flight from their poor, strife-torn republic for a better life in the United States. But few will be deemed eligible to stay.
Henry Lanoix was one of 247 Haitians shoehorned into a 30-foot-long sailboat designed to carry a fraction of that number.
There was barely room to stand. The shoddy boat leaked water as fast as the tattered, sun-baked passengers could bail. The human cargo carried only the clothes on their backs. Their food supply consisted of some peanut butter and bread, but their fresh water supply was woefully short.
They had no toilet. There was no crew to guide them. The fickle winds and currents pushed them along with the flotsam bobbing in the Caribbean Sea. But Henry Lanoix was also propelled by fear gripping his troubled homeland and the faint hope of gulping free air in America.
“You have two chances when you get on the boat. You either die or you are saved,” Lanoix said in recalling the boat ride from hell that eventually landed him in the United States.
“I ran to save my life. The situation is so bad in Haiti, I can’t live there. We are persecuted. More people have died in Haiti than on the boats. Everybody knows that.”
Lanoix’s desperate sea trek began Nov. 21, but he has been fleeing since Sept. 29. That was the night before a military junta toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first president ever elected in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Lanoix, a 30-year-old taxi driver in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, benefited from schooling in which he learned to speak passable English. He belonged to one of several groups supporting Aristide who taught Haitians how to vote.
When Aristide was ousted, the 7,000-member military targeted his supporters, and they quickly found Lanoix. Others like him were shot, he said.
He said soldiers fired their machine guns into his house and killed his 2-year-old daughter. He was separated from his wife and doesn’t know what became of her. He fled to the island of Gonave with the help of the Haitian underground and hid from the soldiers.
“It makes me so sad. I remember my daughter who I loved very much. I remember playing with her,” Lanoix said blankly.
Asked if he ever thought he’d see his wife again, Lanoix said: “I don’t think so. I don’t know. I can’t say anything.”
The short, slight man--dressed in an open collar shirt and casual slacks, his last remaining possessions--spoke in an interview at a church volunteer center helping Haitian migrants. At various times, his dark eyes reflected pain, fear, distance and relief as he recounted recent events.
Lanoix hid three weeks before he finally secured a space on a sailboat that left Port-au-Prince about 10 a.m. on Nov. 21. For 15 hours, the overcrowded vessel, little more than a bobbing chunk of driftwood, pitched atop a choppy sea between Haiti and Cuba in what is called the Windward Passage.
At 3 a.m. on Nov. 22, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter intercepted the pathetic migrants off Cuba after a journey of perhaps 100 miles. After the passengers were removed, the pitiful craft was sunk.
“Yes, I was afraid (at sea). It was very dangerous,” Lanoix said. “I’m so very happy the Coast Guard came to save me. I’m very lucky to live. God did me a favor. He must still need me.”
After being fished from the leaking boat, Lanoix spent three days aboard the Coast Guard ship before winding up at an emergency shelter erected at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Confined there for two weeks, he was allowed to come to Miami to seek political asylum--something every Haitian migrant wants but only a precious few are getting.
As of Dec. 6, about 6,500 Haitians had fled their strife-torn homeland since Oct. 29. The previous record number for an entire year was 4,699 in 1988, according to the Coast Guard.
Only 237 of the latest batch are deemed to have a valid claim for asylum by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The White House wants to ship the remainder back to the land from which they escaped, and 538 had been forced to return before a federal judge halted repatriation and sought a more workable plan.
The Bush Administration fears that granting asylum will only encourage swarms of Haitians to risk the sometimes deadly journey across shark-infested waters.
While lawyers play out the legal tug-of-war, Lanoix found help in Miami through the Church World Service immigration and refugee program, which is part of the National Council of Churches of Christ. If granted asylum, he may apply for a work permit that would make him eligible for a Social Security card. He hopes to stay with a cousin in Ft. Lauderdale.
The latest misery follows a long trail of grief in Haiti, which became the world’s first black republic in 1804 following a slave revolt that won independence from France. During its troubled history, U.S. Marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934, and the nation often has been under the rule of tyrants.
Asked what he would do if he were forced to go back, Lanoix could only spread his hands at his side and shrug his shoulders.
“I want asylum. I want to stay in the United States. I like to be free. If I go back, I will die. The army’s still there. I’d rather die here,” Lanoix said. “Haitian people have suffered for a long time. When I was younger, I thought Haiti would change. Nothing has changed. It will never change.”