Clamor for Investigation Into Death of Elderly Haitian in US Custody

Human rights and humanitarian groups are calling for a full-scale investigation regarding the Nov. 3 death in a South Florida detention facility of an 81-year-old Haitian pastor four days after he had flown to the United States and asked for political asylum.

Church World Service (CWS), the relief arm of 36 Protestant, Orthodox, and Anglican U.S. denominations, called the death of Rev. Joseph Dantica, who held a valid U.S. multiple-entry visa, outrageous and appealed for an end to the discriminatory treatment accorded to Haitians seeking refuge from the political violence that persists in their homeland.

"Maybe, just maybe, this is an event that will finally wake people and spur Congress to act fairly in its treatment of Haitian asylum seekers," said CWS director Rev. John L. McCullough.

It should help that Dantica was the uncle of the award-winning Haitian-American novelist and author, Edwidge Danticat, who wrote a blistering column in the New York Times Wednesday noting that her uncle’s case is not unusual in terms of his tragic confrontation with Haiti’s current political turmoil and the Homeland Security Department’s dismissive treatment of Haitian asylum seekers.

"Like the claims from Cubans, Haitian asylum claims should be considered fairly and humanely so that calamities like my uncle’s flight and eventual death in the custody of the Homeland Security Department are never repeated," she wrote.

Unlike Cubans claiming political asylum, who, once they reach U.S. territory, are routinely released to friends or family, Haitians are automatically detained pending a final decision by the immigration authorities on their asylum claims under a December 2001 regulation issued by the administration of President George W. Bush.

More than 90 percent of such claims have been rejected, a percentage that has not substantially changed over the last three years despite the increase in political turmoil and violence. Individuals whose claims are rejected are returned to Haiti.

Dantica, who had worked in Bel-Air, one of Port-au-Prince’s poorest districts, for some 50 years, flew to Miami with his son, Maxo, on Oct. 29, after hiding for several days from members of an armed gang who had threatened to kill him if he did not pay for the burials of friends who had been killed in a shoot-out with UN forces and Haitian police. Unable to find him, the gang ransacked his home and church and burned down one of the schools he directed.

On arriving at the Miami International Airport with his passport in which the multiple-entry visa was stamped, however, Dantica was asked how long he intended to remain in the United States. Unable to give a definite date, Dantica and his son said they feared they would be killed if they returned and asked for political asylum.

At that point, both Dantica and his son were arrested and held overnight at the airport before being sent to the Krome Detention Center in Miami the following day. On entering Krome, the medicine he brought with him according to Edwidge Danticat, a combination of both herbal and prescription medicines for an inflamed prostate and high blood pressure was confiscated. The father and son were also separated from each other.

On Nov. 3, Dantica died of inflammation of the pancreas at a nearby hospital, where he was reportedly denied visits by members of his family.

"With a valid visa, even though Rev. Dantica had this time requested asylum, immigration authorities had discretionary authority to release him," said McCullough. "To have denied an 81-year-old man needed medication on top of detention is appalling and sadly does nothing more but further damage the image that our country is already suffering in the world community."

"The circumstances surrounding his death are outrageous and cannot be allowed to pass by as if they did not happen," he noted, "calling for a federal investigation into the matter and an immediate halt to pending deportations of Haitian asylum seekers given the continuing violence."

His appeal was joined by Human Rights First (HRF), previously known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. In a letter to the DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, HRF director Michael Posner called on the Department to immediately terminate nationality-based detention policies aimed at Haitian asylum seekers, give all Haitian asylum seekers the chance to have their cases heard by an immigration judge, and put the official parole criteria for asylum seekers into formal regulations.

"The failure of local [immigration] officials to recognize that they did not have to subject Reverend Dantica to expedited removal and that they could have paroled him immediately from detention underscores alarming gaps in the Department [of Homeland Security’s] efforts to meet its obligation to protect asylum seekers," Posner wrote.

His appeal was echoed by Jocelyn McCalla, director of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights. "We urge a review and overhaul of the policy that singles out Haitian refugees and immigrants for discriminatory treatment," he said, noting that Cuban asylum-seekers can walk away happily after applying for asylum whereas Haitians are held behind bars.

McCalla added Dantica had been going in and out of the U.S. for several years, as recently as August, and had not had issues at the border. "His only mistake this time," he said, "was that he requested asylum."

McCalla and other refugee advocates have argued that Haitians should also be eligible to receive Temporary Protective Status (TPS), which is given to non-immigrants from foreign countries where political violence or natural disasters would make it dangerous or particularly difficult for them to be sent home.

Non-immigrant Nicaraguans and Hondurans in the U.S., who were first granted TPS in 1999 after Hurricane Mitch devastated the two countries’ economic infrastructures, have just received another 18-month extension, their fourth in five years.

So far, the administration has ignored appeals from the U.S.-installed Haitian government, as well as refugee and human-rights groups, to grant the 20,000 Haitians living here the same status until the country recovers from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Jean and the political violence that led to the ouster of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide. The violence has continued despite the efforts of the undermanned UN peacekeeping force that took over from an interim U.S.-led force last summer.

Haiti Support Group, a London-based human rights organization, deplored a reported rise in the number and frequency of sexual attacks, including rapes, against women and girls, particularly in the capital and in Gonaives by armed groups, particularly former members of the armed forces that led the rebellion against Aristide.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has also expressed alarm at the apparent rise in the number of killings of street children. "It is unacceptable that children are threatened, kidnapped, murdered and even decapitated," said UNICEF’s representative in Haiti, Francoise Gruloos-Ackermans, noting the headless bodies of two boys, aged 10 and 13, that were taken to the morgue of Port-au-Prince’s general hospital.

(One World)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.