The deported? Thousands of Haitians in Tampa Bay could soon be sent back to unfriendly territory

One young woman is fighting to stay — and in, a way, to live.

click to enlarge CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN: Deportation could mean a death sentence for Robenise. - Kate Bradshaw
Kate Bradshaw
CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN: Deportation could mean a death sentence for Robenise.

As she sat at the end of a conference table in a fluorescent-lit room on the third floor of a downtown St. Pete office building, she seemed more quick to smile than you’d think somebody who’s been through hell would be.

Through Haitian community advocate Micki Morency, who served as translator, 27-year-old Robenise (who declined to give a last name out of fear it could compromise her case) rattled off — in Creole — a list of tragedies and setbacks she’s seen in the past two years. In 2015, she fled Haiti fearing for her life.

Now, she could be sent back.

“She’s terrified,” Morency said later. “That girl is traumatized.”

With help from her lawyer, John Dubrule, Robenise is seeking asylum before she is deported. She awaits her fate at an unusually challenging time: The Trump administration’s immigration policy shifts reflect a deep hostility toward immigrants, even those who, like Robenise, faced persecution and death threats in their home countries. Plus, a looming end to Haiti’s temporary protective status (TPS), which legally covers nearly 60,000 Haitians who were undocumented in the U.S. prior to the devastating 2010 earthquake, means the country will see a massive influx of deportees who haven’t lived there in years. Seeking to connect with family she has near Bradenton, Robenise came to the U.S. in September of 2016, much too late for TPS consideration. If deported, she’d have to go back to Haiti as part of a population surge the country — the Western Hemisphere’s poorest — probably would not be able to handle.

“There’s a lot of evidence that Haiti is still in chaos not only from the earthquake but from the hurricane two years ago,” Dubrule said. “I don’t see how, legitimately, we can send people back to that situation. Because people are going to die, no doubt about it.”

Dubrule said Robenisefaces some tough odds at getting asylum; chances are perhaps as low as one in 10.

Not that Robenise hasn’t had the cards stacked against her before.

Growing up in an area known as Gonaives amid Haiti’s notoriously turbulent and corruption-laden politics, Robenise said she remembers witnessing abuses and fearing for her safety, partly because her parents’ activity with the political party known as Convergence Democratique was at odds with Fanmi Lavalas, the party in power. Politics in Haiti, Morency said, isn’t like politics in the U.S; violence against members of opposing factions is much more common there.

While estimates of the hard-to-nail-down unemployment rate in Haiti range from 40 to 80 percent, Robenise said she worked as a cashier — until she decided it was time to flee. In 2014, political enemies shot and killed her father in the family’s home. Her mother and sister were also later killed. Robenise was sent to live with an aunt in Port au Prince, she said through Morency, and while living there she witnessed a gang member killing a cop who was a political foe. She and the gang member recognized each other, so she knew that to stay would mean certain death. So she fled. First back to Gonaives, then to the Dominican Republic by bus, then flying to Ecuador, a country she didn’t need a visa to land in.

That’s how her harrowing journey to the U.S. began.

Fortunately for Robenise, she has family in the Tampa Bay area, where the Haitian population is upwards of 20,000 by some estimates that include Manatee and Sarasota counties. And it’s a tight-knit community, Dubrule said.

“It’s really their own social structure,” he said. “People know people. They can stay with relatives. There’s a really strong family support structure.”

Some, like Morency, have been here for decades and have become American citizens. Others haven’t been so lucky, but have managed to stay legally under TPS. Those who qualify are authorized to work, are issued Social Security cards and pay taxes; they’re not allowed to use any public benefit, like food stamps or public housing.

“When you go to the food store and buy tomatoes, it is most likely picked up by a Haitian person or a Mexican person,” Morency said. “These are the people who pick our food for, like, nothing. So if you were to have Americans go into the fields and pick the food, you wouldn’t be able to afford a tomato at Publix.”

That Haitians already in the U.S. were able to stay legally under TPS following the 2010 earthquake — as opposed to the feds sending them into a humanitarian crisis — meant that many were able to build lives, have families and  buy cars and houses — all of which could go away.

TPS is set to expire January 22 of next year, which means thousands of Haitians across Florida will have to go back (not counting undocumented Haitians — as Robenise technically is at the moment — who are being targeted for deportation at an accelerated rate since January 2017).

“They’re being told, pack your bags,” Dubrule said. “They’re being told they have to go to Haiti and their children have no history in Haiti... This is going to be very hard on these people.”

click to enlarge HOMELAND INSECURITY: An aerial photo of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake. - UN Photo/Logan Abassi UNDP Global - originally posted to Flickr as Peacekeeping - MINUSTAH
UN Photo/Logan Abassi UNDP Global - originally posted to Flickr as Peacekeeping - MINUSTAH
HOMELAND INSECURITY: An aerial photo of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake.

Advocates say there’s no way a country that has yet to fully recover from the 2010 earthquake and, subsequently, Hurricane Matthew in 2016, is rife with sexual violence against women and remains politically unstable can handle such an influx. Those who have built lives in the U.S. are petrified of being sent back.

“They’re living in great fear. They’ve created a new life here. They have jobs, they have families, some of them have started businesses,” said Sabrina Burton-Schultz, director of life ministries, Diocese of St. Petersburg, which organizes clinics to help the local Haitian population understand their rights and, if undocumented, seek legal status while preparing for the worst. “It’s a great deal of anxiety that they’re feeling, that this status, in six months, could be ripped away by the current administration.”

Some have recourse, said labor and immigration attorney Daniela Carrion. He’s part of the effort to inform Haitians whose status might be in jeopardy what their options are.

People whose deportation proceedings have already started could be eligible for cancellation of removal if they have lived in the U.S. for over ten years, are “of good moral character” and have a parent, spouse or child who would suffer and “an exceptional and extreme unusual hardship” if the person in question were to be deported.

Those whose status may change come January ought to consult an immigration lawyer, she said.

“We all know TPS was meant to have a cutoff date just like any other country,” Carrion said, but given conditions there, she and others are trying to give lawful Haitians who could be subject to deportation legal options.

She said she also instructs them on how to act if stopped by authorities.

“The first thing I tell them is that you should never admit to what country you’re from,” she said, because it opens them up to more questions about their status.

Carrion adds that if stopped, they should never give their name or immigration status — even when pressed to do so by authorities — and to demand the presence of a lawyer before answering any questions.

For Robenise, it’s a little late for all that. She’s due in court for a deportation hearing in November, but Dubrule hopes to preempt that by filing for her asylum in September.

If she and her family hadn’t been the target of violent political foes, he argues, she wouldn’t have risked her life by embarking on the dangerous trip that got her here.

Robenise is one of thousands who made the perilous trek from Ecuador to Brazil to the U.S.-Mexico border, largely by car and on foot alongside others seeking a new life.

“She didn’t know what laid ahead when she left Brazil,” Morency, her translator, said. “She was progressively more terrified as the journey continued.”

On the way, she passed the bodies of people on the same trek, people who also fled Haiti fearing for their lives, but who starved or died along the way as they walked the rugged terrain. She saw a man give the last of his food and water to the woman who was pregnant with their child; the man died soon after, and his partner just had to leave the body there. She and her fellow travelers, strangers who banded together via a network of fellow Haitians who communicated their route via cell phones when there was reception, were often terrorized by gangs and bandits as they snaked their way through South and Central America.

Robenise said she got mugged in Nicaragua by someone wielding a machete, who slashed her thigh and took the money she’d spent 11 months earning in Brazil to fund the trek to the U.S. After two months, she said, she finally got to the U.S.-Mexico border — only to get caught by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials and sent to languish in a detention facility in Calexico, California.

Her timing was off. It had long been impossible for someone like her to gain TPS, and under the Obama administration ICE had just begun to crack down on Haitians entering the States. Prior to her passage, the feds began turning away Haitians, who have been flooding the U.S.-Mexico border, most after fleeing the country and making a journey in circumstances similar to Robenise’s.

“That’s the influx we’re seeing right now,” said Carrion. “Those that are making a ridiculous trip have a fear of returning to their country for A and B reasons. These people were not the people who were trying to come in 2010 [in the wake of the hurricane].”

Robenise spent seven months there. Then she was released and given permission to travel to Manatee County to stay with relatives to await her deportation proceedings.

There, she can rarely leave the house and wears an ankle bracelet that allows authorities to monitor her whereabouts. She can’t work and is petrified of the grim prospect of being sent back to a country where, just two years ago, people wanted her dead.

“She left Haiti because her life was in danger,” Morency said. “Her life’s in danger [now] because she has to return to Haiti.” 

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