By Sam Bojarski
Earlier this week, Fredly Charles and Junior Augustine were detained in Louisiana, awaiting deportation. For the two men, this meant leaving family in the United States behind. A return to Haiti, a place they barely know, risked exposing more people to the novel coronavirus.
Massachusetts attorney Ira Alkalay said Charles, his client, was one of at least 12 Haitians held at the Alexandria, Louisiana, staging facility who were scheduled for deportation April 7. The facility is an Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) detention center managed by the corrections company GEO Group. Due to his coronavirus exposure, Charles was pulled off the flight right before it departed for Port-au-Prince, Alkalay confirmed.
ICE raids and deportations have continued through the worst days of the pandemic and have consequences for the Haitian community at large, both in the United States and Haiti itself. In the diaspora, hearing news of ICE raids “always strikes fear in the community, which affects many things,” said Leonie Hermantin, director of communications at the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami.
Charles, a civil detainee with no open criminal charges against him, is married to a U.S. citizen and has two children in the country who are also citizens. According to Alkalay, his return to Haiti would have meant starting his life over again could also mean ostracization as a potential carrier of coronavirus. Haiti has been rocked by recent political instability.
“He’s very, very concerned, he hasn’t been to Haiti since he was a child and he doesn’t have any family there,” added Alkalay, in an April 6 interview. At the time, Charles believed he was leaving for Haiti the following day.
Sabrina Salomon, a Florida-based attorney representing the 29-year-old Augustine, said it is unclear if he would ever be able to return to his wife in south Florida after being deported. Augustine’s detention comes at an age when many couples consider starting a family.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this, especially now that she needs him around the most,” Salomon said.
Before arriving in Alexandria, Charles spent time in two other detention facilities: Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in Massachusetts and Strafford County Jail in New Hampshire.
Bristol County Jail is the subject of a federal lawsuit calling for the release of ICE detainees at the facility due to overcrowding and improper coronavirus screening. A nurse who worked at the ICE facility there tested positive for coronavirus April 1. Detainees went on strike that week to protest conditions.
Alkalay said in an April 6 interview that he visited the facility about a dozen times over the past two weeks. Beds are three feet apart, and detainees eat and sleep in a single room.
“There’s no social distancing, and the sanitation there is quite poor,” he added.
A deputy sheriff in Strafford County has tested positive for coronavirus, according to an April 2 media report. While members of the county sheriff’s office are used to transport inmates, officials have claimed there was no threat of exposure to inmates at the county’s corrections facilities.
Charles had expressed concerns to Alkalay about a fellow detainee, believed to be from Pakistan, who was sick with possible coronavirus symptoms. The two men were transported together from Bristol County to Strafford.
Charles had been detained in Bristol County for 16 months and was brought to Strafford County on March 27. He was there for about five days before being sent to Louisiana, Alkalay wrote in an email shared with the Haitian Times.
Federal immigration officials planned to deport the Haitian nationals despite the Haitian government closing the country’s international airports to commercial flights, in an effort to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.
Guerline Jozef, co-founder of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, which serves asylum seekers in the U.S., said flights carrying deportees to Haiti are typically chartered. Jozef collaborated on a petition to ICE and the Trump administration, in an effort to stop the deportation flight. However, she confirmed that the flight landed in Port-au-Prince on April 7.
“There have been (coronavirus) confirmed cases both from detainees and officers in detention centers in Louisiana, so that is another risk,” Jozef said.
Throughout Central America, deportees are being returned not only to the violence they fled, but also to insufficient health care systems. Despite the governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador requesting that the U.S. not send deportees back to Central America during the global pandemic, three to four flights were arriving each week during March, according to an April 2 press release from the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organization.
Community spread of the coronavirus has already been identified in Haiti, which lacks critical equipment and manpower for managing the virus. One 2019 study of the nation’s health care capacity identified just 124 ICU beds and the capacity to ventilate just 62 people, in the nation of 11 million. Haiti reported its first coronavirus death on April 5 and had 21 confirmed cases as of that date, a number that is almost certainly an undercount.
Immigration enforcement and the diaspora
Many in the Haitian diaspora, which numbers over 1 million people in the U.S., know at least one person, either a friend or family member, who is undocumented, said Hermantin.
“If you have to shelter somebody who doesn’t have papers because they’re your brother, your sister, and if you think that ICE is going to come to your house, you know, you’re probably putting pressure on them to leave,” Hermantin said.
This February, ICE intensified its operations in sanctuary cities, those municipalities that refuse to aid federal authorities in detaining undocumented immigrants. Raids have occurred this March in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Colorado, according to media reports.
According to the ICEWatch interactive map, maintained by the Immigrant Defense Project, 27 raids occurred in the New York City metropolitan area from March 1 to March 19, the last date for which information was available.
Guidance on COVID-19 issued by ICE said the agency would not conduct enforcement operations at medical facilities, except under extraordinary circumstances. ICE has also stated its operations will focus on public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention on criminal grounds. Its guidance was last updated March 18.
Genia Blaser, senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project, based in New York City, said ICE continues to use its public safety rhetoric to normalize the way it conducts operations. Coronavirus has not stopped ICE agents from going into communities and potentially becoming transmitters of the disease.
In the New York City area, ICE has released detainees in response to litigation. But despite the risk of coronavirus transmission inside detention facilities, Blaser said there have been very few instances where ICE has released individuals who are medically vulnerable.
According to the Pew Research Center, about 100,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants resided in the U.S. as of 2016. Fear of immigration enforcement actions could discourage Haitians from accessing much-needed public services, in both the short- and long-term.
“The community is very stressed right now, very, very stressed. No jobs, unemployment is really really high,” Hermantin said.
When it comes to the 2020 Census, there is fear that the undocumented will not respond. The Census Bureau seeks to collect data on all residents living in the U.S., regardless of immigration status. Despite Trump administration efforts, the 2020 census does not contain a question asking about citizenship.
Due to coronavirus concerns, the deadline to respond to the once-per-decade census has been extended to mid-August.
“We’re very concerned with how (news of ICE raids) affects the census response rate, because we know that the lower the response rate, the lower the resources that can come into our community,” Hermantin said.
The threat of immigration enforcement could also add to the climate of fear and confusion surrounding the application process for public assistance, according to Hermantin. The Trump administration redefined the public charge rule ‒ a criteria used by federal officials to determine whether to grant legal permanent resident status ‒ in 2019. Overall, the changes made it more difficult for immigrants who have received public housing, food assistance and other benefits to attain lawful permanent resident status.
The Sant La center, which provides job placement, naturalization assistance and other services to Miami’s Haitian community, has made efforts to educate community members about public charge. The rule impacts residents when attempting to change their status, not when applying for benefits.
For example, public charge would not impact an undocumented parent’s food stamp request for their citizen children. “But people don’t know that, and even if they know that, they’re fearful,” Hermantin added.
In the midst of a health and economic crisis, the threat of enforcement actions forces some Haitians to worry about their legal status, increasing tension in an already uncertain time.
“Whether it’s happening in our community or not, the impact is still one that we’re concerned about,” Hermantin said.