Back in Homeland and Behind Bars

Times Staff Writer

Clifford Estera was 3 years old when his family left Haiti for Boston, and he puts his chances of re-integrating into the society of his birth at close to zero.

"I have no ties here. I don't know what I'm going to do," he said at the Port-au-Prince airport this week.

For now the 24-year-old will not get a chance to try to fit in. Like two dozen other handcuffed passengers aboard his flight from Miami, Estera was taken directly from the airport to prison, though he has been convicted of no crime in his homeland.

Ending a six-month hiatus that gave the U.S.-backed interim government time to restore some semblance of order after a rebellion, the Department of Homeland Security this month quietly resumed deporting Haitians who were being held at U.S. detention centers for visa violations or those who had served prison terms for criminal convictions.

Returnees such as Estera, who had done time in the U.S. for drug trafficking, were detained on arrival here for fear they would join forces with local gangsters in the interest of survival, Haitian police and justice officials said.

"They already have bad records, and considering the circumstances that prevail in this country, we have to fear they will resume lives of crime," said Wiener Cadet, head of the national security directorate of the Interior Ministry. "We would like to do something to steer them in a different direction, but even those who haven't ever committed crimes can't find jobs here."

Washington has the legal right to deport foreigners who commit crimes in the United States, including boat people who entered the country illegally, acknowledged Smith Barthelus, the Haitian Interior Ministry official responsible for foreign liaison.

But, he said, repatriating longtime U.S. residents with criminal histories contradicts White House pledges to help restore security here after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled into exile in February to escape the rebellion. Dozens of people have been killed in violence this month, despite the presence of more than 3,000 peacekeepers.

"The government of the United States is not interested in what is going on in Haiti," Barthelus said. "They say they want to help us recover. But if that is true, this [the deportation effort] is certainly counterproductive."

Interim Justice Minister Bernard Gousse asked U.S. officials in April to suspend the deportations because Haiti's police force was in such tatters then that a few hundred armed rebels managed to take control of the country and free all 4,000 detainees in jails and prisons. The freed felons, along with deportees from U.S. correctional facilities, organized kidnapping and drug-running gangs, Gousse said.

U.S. officials informed the Haitian government last month that deportations would resume because American prisons and detention facilities were becoming overcrowded, Barthelus said he was told.

The U.S. Embassy referred queries to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not return numerous phone calls.

Human rights groups agree that the deportations are legal, but they lament the policy adopted eight years ago that allows even long-term U.S. residents to be expelled without recourse.

"Unfortunately, due to many of the changes in the 1996 laws, the list of convictions for which an individual can be deported has increased dramatically, while simultaneously eliminating the ability of a federal immigration judge to even hear a discretionary waiver case," said Jack Wallace, a lawyer with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

Michael Francois, 34, an Orlando construction worker whose family immigrated to Florida when he was 14, served a year in county jail in Panama City, Fla., for a 1995 drug conviction. Free and out of trouble since then, he married a U.S. citizen and had four children. His application for a green card last year triggered a review of his background and alerted authorities to his criminal record, which led to his deportation.

"I know they most likely won't let him back now that he's already in Haiti," said his brother, Frank, who had been petitioning members of Congress to thwart the deportation since Michael was placed in a Miami-area detention center in November. His family was unaware that he had been deported until contacted by a reporter.

Politicians from states with large Haitian American populations have been lobbying for temporary protected status for Haitian natives.

"It is simply unconscionable that the Bush administration should continue to deport Haitians -- some of them long-standing U.S. residents -- under these circumstances," said Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), noting that the State Department last week deemed the Caribbean nation so unstable that it recalled nonessential diplomatic personnel.

Haitian authorities have no grounds to indefinitely imprison the deportees because they are not wanted for any crimes here, said Cadet, the national security chief. Yet all but one of the 49 flown here since Oct. 4 remain in a dank penitentiary because authorities fear they might align with street gangs, he said.

"They will stay in jail for a while. We'll have a committee look into each case and see if there is some family member who will take them," he said, speculating that it would be at least a couple of weeks before any were released.

The sole deportee not jailed was released by police en route to the prison, an unauthorized move that was being investigated, officials said.

One returnee said it was wrong that he was back in jail.

"I done paid my dues already," said Arrioce Almonor, a warehouseman from Fort Lauderdale who has spent nearly half of his 27 years in Florida. He served six months in a county jail for cocaine possession in a plea bargain -- unaware, he said, that he could face deportation.

"I have a green card. I work and pay my taxes. My people are all [U.S.] citizens and I don't know nobody here. Why is it one strike and I'm out?"

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