By Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul
It was a rainy day in March, when Jean René Suprena listened intently to Jeremy Jong, his lawyer, inside the attorney visitation room at LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana. Both men sat across opposite sides of the thick plexiglass in the room as they went over Suprena’s asylum case. Outside, rain poured down on the isolated immigration facility surrounded by woods.
On December 28, 2017, Suprena crossed the border to the United States and turned himself in to the authorities to request asylum. A month later, after being transferred to three different detention facilities, he passed his credible fear interview –a necessary step in asylum applications. The detention officer who conducted his credible fear interview asked Suprena what would happen if he went back to Haiti. “I’d die,” he answered.
Suprena requested to get out of detention to fight his asylum case next to his wife and two kids, who live in Florida.
His oldest child suffers from a blood cell disease and his wife, an immigrant herself, struggled to find an apartment lease, take care of the kids and pay the bills. But his request for parole was quickly denied, forcing him to see the remainder of his asylum case from inside the detention facility in Louisiana.
“When you’re in one of these places, you’re detained. Detained,” said the short skinny black man with an oversized beige sweatshirt over a navy-blue uniform during an interview. “You’re not well. You’re not bad,” he added. “You’re detained.”
Before they came to the United States, Suprena and his wife moved from the Dominican Republic to Brazil and Mexico after fleeing Haiti seven years ago, when Suprena’s half-brother tried to kill him.
Their case is not an isolated one. For decades now, millions of Haitians have left their country in search of better opportunities. The Haitian diaspora as we know it can be traced back to the American occupation of the island during the First World War, explained José C. Moya, Director of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University. That was followed by political instability during the Duvalier dictatorship and worsened by the earthquake, which devastated an already poor country.
“Let’s remember Haiti is an exception,” said Moya. “It is the poorest country in the Americas by far, and among the poorest countries in the world.” Almost 60 percent of Haitians live below the national poverty line of $2.41 per day and twenty-four percent live below the national extreme poverty line of $1.23 per day, according to the World Bank.
Those with more means have migrated to Canada or France, where they speak the language and have been welcomed for their skills. The rest have migrated by foot or boat to places where they’ve been able to do physical labor, seasonal work, trade, and commerce. During the past five years, added Moya, the destination countries include those in South America.
Haiti is the nation with the eighth largest number of asylum cases processed in the United States, including countries with populations as large as China’s, India’s, and Mexico’s.
After the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the United States government offered Temporary Protection Status to almost 60,000 immigrants. That protection will be terminated in one year, on July 22, 2019, as instructed by president Donald Trump.
When Suprena’s parole request was denied, Jong sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking the officer in charge to reconsider.
Shortly after, they received a response from the deportation officer stating that the government would reconsider their request for parole. “But he told me that they just sent the letter as a courtesy, that they’re not actually considering it,” said Jong. “That’s what we’re seeing across the board, in the entire county” he added.
Since Trump signed an executive order in January 2017 instructing the Department of Homeland Security to hold immigrants in detention for the duration of their court proceedings. This order directly contradicted the 2009 ICE Asylum Parole Directive, which favored asylum seekers who passed their credible fear interviews to be paroled.
Only in 2017, the asylum seekers who passed their credible fear interviews and were denied parole ascended to 6,922, according to a study by Human Rights First, an advocacy organization.
“If you turn yourself at the border or in the airport, you’re not getting out unless you win your asylum case,” Jong explained.
Before even thinking about immigrating, Suprena was born in Haiti to a family of three sons. His father had two older boys with a different woman when he and his mother had him and his brothers. Whatever things of value his father had, which included some land and economic assets, he left as an inheritance for his five sons.
Suprena’s older half-brothers François and Selfil had a drug habit and they quickly used the profits from their share of the inheritance to fuel their addiction and joined a local criminal group to traffic drugs. When they were left with nothing, they came after Suprena’s money.
In December 2010, François came to Suprena’s house, barged into his room, and started choking him to death. Suprena struggled to break loose and started for the exit, but his older brother hit him with the door and beat him, knocking out several of his teeth and cutting off two of his fingers.
That was the first time his half-brother tried to murder him. The following attempts would include setting Suprena on fire.
His half-brothers and their criminal group had close connections to the Haitian police. Unable to find protection, Suprena fled the country in January 2011 to join a different brother in the Dominican Republic. He was 22 years old.
In the D.R., he went to see a doctor. His gums were so badly injured that an implant would not take, making his teeth loss a definitive one. Shortly after, his brother left for Brazil, as they couldn’t legally immigrate to the D.R. Still convalescent and with no passport, Suprena stayed behind in the neighboring country.
It took him two years to be able to get his passport and join his brother in Brazil, where he would look for a stable immigration status and legal employment to settle with his wife, Elidiane Jean.
Nine days after leaving the Caribbean country, Suprena reached Brazil. He secured a working visa and found a job. A year later, in 2014, Jean travelled to Brazil where she and Suprena were finally reunited. Together, with a work permit and economic stability, they had their first child. Rinaldi Jean Suprena, a Brazilian citizen, was born in São José in the summer of 2015.
As good as things were, they wouldn’t last. “I kept receiving more threats from my brother,” recalled Suprena, referring to François. “He said he was in Brazil, that he was there to murder me,” he said. “But I thought those were lies.”
When his son turned one-year-old, a friend told Suprena that he had seen François. Skeptical, Suprena asked for proof. His friend led the way to a narrow street and pointed at someone. There he was. Suprena saw his half-brother and understood he would have to leave Brazil, too.
It took him three months to get to Mexico, where he applied for asylum, but only managed to get humanitarian paperwork that allowed him to work for one year. In Mexico, Suprena, his wife and their toddler had no family, no set work and no hopes for a permanent immigration status.
As their one-year humanitarian paperwork came to an end, they realized they needed to move along. Suprena had a cousin in Florida. Crossing the border to the United States turned into their only option.
Jean, by then pregnant with their second child, entered the U.S. with their two-year-old son in February 2017. Suprena would follow 10 months later.
On December 28, 2017, he finally crossed the border from Mexico to the United States through the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
More than five months after he came to the United States, turned himself in, applied for asylum, passed his credible fear interview, and was denied parole, Jean René Suprena’s request for asylum was denied.
They plan to appeal.
During the period between 2011 to 2016, Haitians were denied asylum at a rate of 80 percent, according to statistics gathered by TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University. In 2018, it’ll take Haitians detained at LaSalle 104 days in average to have their immigration cases completed. When Suprena’s asylum petition was denied, he had already gone over the average.
“Haitians have been forced to migrate from one place to the other, always unwelcome, always have to keep moving,” said Jong. “These people have just been treated terribly.”
While Suprena is detained at the facility in Jena, a town 45 minutes away from the closest city with a population of three thousand people, his wife has had a hard time finding a place to live in Florida. She was kicked out of the place she rented because of their children, and other landlords won’t rent her an apartment as a migrant mother with two toddlers. She sought help with Suprena’s cousin and started an asylum application herself. While they wait, she’s started working at a restaurant to pay the bills, leaving her kids alone all day.
When he talked about his situation, Suprena stared straight ahead, almost as if looking at a distant place beyond the walls surrounding him, and said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with my life.” After a pause, he added, “I can’t take it anymore.”