NEW YORK - Under thick February clouds, Jerry Poulard, 29, strode across Worth Street, to the New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). After a sleepless night in his Rockland County, NY, home, he’d prepared his possessions, but simply couldn’t ready himself for ICE’s message to him: deportation to Haiti.
“If I’m going back I’m accepting a death sentence.” said Poulard, a US resident since age 14. “Where will I stay? I just ask they let us wait until the country is rebuilt.”
The US government sees Poulard as an ex-convict who needs to leave the country. In January, the US sent its first batch of 27 deportees to Haiti since the 2009 earthquake, and Poulard now waits with hundreds of others to fly to a shattered Haiti.
Already, one deportee has died of untreated “cholera-like symptoms” on January 22. Now, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is urging US suspension of deportations for Haitians with illnesses or with US family members. But ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said deportations have not been suspended, and that ICE is moving ahead with plans to deport 700 Haitians in 2011.
Michelle Karshan, director of Alternative Chance, an organization that aids Haitian deportees, called the first deportee’s death “tragic” but “predicted.” She said that deportees arriving in Haiti wait in police station cells with no medical care until family members get them anytime from two weeks to five months later.
“In a cell like that, one person gets cholera and it spreads to the rest,” said Karshan, who runs a medical care system in Haiti’s prisons. More than 4,000 Haitians have died of cholera, and over 200,000 people have been infected. “All of Haiti is in crisis from A-Z.”
Gonzalez said that ICE is currently only deporting “criminal convicts and those who pose a serious threat,” and that they will “prioritize the more serious offenders while balancing the interest of the Haitian government in an orderly repatriation process.”
Karshan, however, argued that almost all of these “criminal convicts” with final orders live at home and pose no threats to their US communities.
“Why is there such urgency to deport them now?” she asked. “Deporting people is no way for the US to support Haiti’s reconstruction.”
To Regime Villard, 22, her cousin Poulard is anything but a threat—“he’s like the father of our house.” After bragging about Poulard’s culinary creations—beans and rice, Haitian patties, and “the best ginger tea ever”—she moaned at the thought of his deportation.
“That’s the next worst thing to someone passing away,” she said. “We need him.”
Though Poulard, 29, spent 5 years in jail at age 19 for convicted robbery, Villard said he is now “responsible,” “spiritual,” and “a leader.” Poulard claims the incident was a run-in with the wrong crowd.
Out of jail in 2005, he began work at the local Stop ‘n’ Shop supermarket, a job he said “God decided” would help support his family.
In 2009, however, Canadian border patrol stopped him from attempting to visit a friend in Canada, because they saw his criminal record. Then American ICE picked him up and detained him for 16 months, and gave him his final deportation order in April 2010.
“I thought I was a free man—I was off parole, even trying to get my citizenship,” said Poulard, whose father is a naturalized US citizen. “God will get me through—life is suffering.”
Poulard’s past lawyer, Jude Nelson, said his client was “punished twice”—first by the US prison system, then by immigration officials--for the same crime.
“It’s unfair if a person has proven that he’s not actually a threat. He’s been penalized for something he’s spent time for already,” said Nelson, who claimed he often defends clients in similar situations. “They’ve been out of the system and role models for people, and then they’re back in the system for something they did 10 years ago.”
Nelson suggested a statute of limitation be instated for robberies and other “crimes of moral turpitude,” adding that such a time limit already is placed on white collar crimes like fraud and forgery.
Poulard asked for a second chance to stay in the States, and he dreads not only sickness, but also shame, in his return to Haiti. His mother, who hasn’t lived with him since he was a baby, is in Haiti with his two younger sisters, and he said the earthquake wiped out their house and belongings.
“I sent them money when I was working here, but now I have nothing to give them. I was a future and that resource stopped,” said Poulard. “Imagine going and facing that person, that I got in with the wrong crowd. Once you fall, that person crumbles.”
Confronting his mother, along with the rest of his country, may be his hardest challenge yet.
Karshan warned that the Haitian government stigmatizes criminal deportees in Haiti to scapegoat them for the country’s problems.
“The word ’criminal’ in Haiti implies assassin…People fear them and some have even been lynched upon entering a neighborhood,” she said, explaining that families may even be too afraid to claim a deported relative.
Karshan, who has lived in Haiti “most of the last 15 years,” then spoke of the suffering all Haitian locals still face in post-earthquake Haiti.
“It’s worse than it looks—even the buildings that haven’t collapsed need to be demolished because they’re unstable,” said Karshan, who works in Port Au Prince. “People are really living in mud…it’s difficult to move around, because people are sleeping in the streets.” She also warned that more cholera was imminent with the rainy season’s approach.
“It’s a disaster area—you don’t deport people in there, you try to get them out!”
Entering the ICE building with his friend Joseph Bosquet, 41, Poulard spoke of his bond with other Haitians facing deportation.
“We met in ICE detention, we were released on the same day, and now we’re reporting the same day,” Poulard said of Bosquet, who spent 16 years in prison for convicted robbery in 1992. After prison, Bosquet went straight to the INS Buffalo Federal Detention Center, where he said he made 15 Haitian friends.
“I know I have a past, I just want a second chance,” said Bosquet, a construction worker who’s lived in the United States for 25 years and who fears “not being able to say goodbye” to his 72-year-old mother. “It would be madness, getting sent to Haiti. I don’t know what I’d do.”
Ascending in an elevator to the 9th floor, the men entered a quiet white waiting room filled with other US immigrants, and with pictures of President Obama and Janet Napolitano on the wall. Taking a seat, Poulard bowed his shiny buzzed head in prayer, after text messaging his loved one and said his nervousness was “the worst.”
In the waiting room, Juan Carlos Ruiz, an advocate for the men, explained the importance of having someone accompany the deportees in the building.
“They go into offices and sometimes they don’t come out,” he said of the immigrants in the waiting area. “The invisible ones are easier to disappear because people don’t notice.” Ruiz, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement for people vulnerable to deportation, stressed that immigrants with criminal records deserve respect.
“It’s like once they label you a criminal you’re a non-entity,” he said. “People cannot be reduced to a mistake. They’re still human beings with human rights.” The U.S. government’s main view of immigrants is “all about enforcement,” said Ruiz, an immigrant from Mexico 25 years ago. “Are we immigrants just a security threat for the States, or are we more?”
Finally, an ICE official called “Joseph Nick,” and Bosquet raced up to the front of the room.
“4/11! April!” he shouted, reading a paper with his next meeting date. A huge grin slapped across his face, as Poulard patted him on the back and laughed. No deportation yet.
“If you’re good I have to be good! We used to be bunkies in the cell, got released the same day,” Poulard repeated, glowing. Then his name was called, and he ran up to view his paper. “Whooo! God is good, my Lord, God is good!” he yelled, showing off his May 10th report date for his next ICE meeting. He kissed his hand and tossed it to the air, and then he and Bosquet trotted out of the room.
“God bless, God bless you all,” said Poulard to the people around him.
Ruiz warned that the men’s delayed meeting date still meant “having them on a leash,” and said that the court’s arbitrary decisions could be reversed with the stroke of an ICE official pen. The men listened with fierce determination.
“We have to fight—Obama has the power to change these deportations now,” said Bosquet, adding that he feels like “a changed man that just wants to work.”
Poulard also acknowledged that “we don’t know what might take place—something could change tomorrow.” But, he said again, “God is good!”
And so, bouncing buoyantly out of ICE’s doors and back across Worth Street, Poulard and Bosquet glanced up at the clouds, and saw a moment of sun.
Whether they will be one of the 700 deportees to Haiti this year is yet to be known.