Logo: Michelle Karshan and staff and participants of Alternative Chance/Chans Altenativ in Haiti
New life is no life for U.S. ex-cons in Haiti
Criminal deportation is a sore point with the impoverished Caribbean nation, where former inmates are often blamed for rising crime
By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
May 17, 2007
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HaitiIn recent years, U.S. authorities have deported to
Haiti some 2,000 criminals of Haitian descent under a controversial
policy that some officials here say has helped fuel a wave of
kidnappings and other violent crime.
The deportees, who have been convicted in the U.S. of crimes ranging
from armed robbery to sexual abuse, often grow up in America and return
to this impoverished land, instilling fear in other Haitians while
facing their own hardship and discrimination.
"It's been rough," said Augustin Saint-Ville, 30, who said he was
deported from the U.S. a decade ago after serving 5 1/2 years in prison
for selling crack cocaine. "I want to go back. You've got to have money
to be in Haiti, and there is no money."
The deportation of criminals has become a sore point between the U.S.
and Haiti, which is struggling to absorb an increasing number of ex-cons
at a time when the judicial system has collapsed, its prisons are
overcrowded, the police force is weak and political stability is tenuous.
"It is a very sensitive issue," said Raymond Joseph, Haiti's ambassador
to the U.S. "In the past, we've asked that they slow down the pace [of
deportations] because some of the deportees are hardened criminals who
learned their trade in America."
In December, Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis said U.S.
authorities threatened to cut assistance to Haiti if it refused to
accept the deportees.
U.S. diplomats in Port-au-Prince deny making such a threat and challenge
the assertion that criminal deportees, known here as "DPs," imperil
"I'm not sure I've seen any statistics that would bear out the
allegations that deportees are responsible for the crime wave," Janet
Sanderson, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said in an interview. "I think
the crime wave in Haiti goes much deeper than that."
Role of deportees disputed
Fred Blaise, chief spokesman for the United Nations police force in
Haiti, said not a single criminal deportee is among the hundreds of
Haitians arrested in recent months during a major crackdown by UN troops
against Haiti's powerful street gangs.
Diplomats and police say the gangs are largely responsible for the
nation's 603 kidnappings in the past 16 months, along with many other
"People have had that big myth that there was a bunch of criminal
deportees that were involved," said Blaise, who represents the police
component of the UN's 8,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Haiti. "It
ended up being not true."
Still, many deportees say the Haitian government's effort to demonize
them has made it difficult to find jobs or achieve broader acceptance.
"Everyone is so afraid of us even though we haven't done anything here,"
said James Felix, 31, a Belle Glade, Fla., resident deported in January
after serving 17 months in prison for cocaine possession and child
neglect. "We are looked at as killers. We are public enemy No. 1."
Scorned as 'troublemakers'
Like many Haitians, businessman Georges Sassine said he would never hire
a criminal deportee because he considers them "troublemakers."
"There are too many good people here," said Sassine, who owns a textile
factory and is vice president of the Haitian Manufacturers Association.
"Why am I going to hire a reject?"
The battle over criminal deportees dates back to 1996 when the U.S.
changed immigration law to make it easier to deport aliens for crimes
ranging from theft to drug possession.
Last year, U.S. authorities deported 88,662 criminal aliens, with the
majority going to seven Latin American and Caribbean nations: Mexico,
the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Jamaica and
Politicians throughout the region blame the ex-cons for a surge in
street gangs and violent crime. The Caribbean now has the world's
highest homicide rate.
But a March report by the UN and World Bank attributed the Caribbean's
soaring crime rate to drug trafficking and other factors.
"The average deportee is not involved in criminal activity, but a
minority may be causing serious problems, both by direct involvement in
crime and by providing a perverse role model for youth," the report
The U.S. suspended the deportation of criminal aliens to Haiti in July
2004 after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. American and
Haitian officials apparently agreed the political situation was too
volatile to add ex-cons to the mix.
But the deportations resumed last year after President Rene Preval took
office, and, because of a backlog, about 100 ex-cons arrive each month
in Haiti, more than double the average number since 2003.
Many of the deportees are from Boston, New York and Florida, where there
are large Haitian-American communities.
Gerard Morency, adjunct coordinator at Haiti's National Office of
Migration, said most deportees are not violent offenders, a fact he
hopes to spread to the public through radio and television ads beginning
"We want to tell people that they [deportees] are not that bad," Morency
said. "We want to get rid of that stigma."
The U.S. also is spending $1 million to provide new deportees
counseling, job training and other services to ease their reintegration
into Haitian life. But the program is in its infancy, and its results
New deportees are detained on arrival in Haiti for anywhere from several
days to several months before being released on probation. Some
detainees like Felix complain that police pressured them into paying
bribes to get out of jail.
At a police headquarters near the airport, some 80 prisonersincluding
11 deporteesare packed into a holding cell where many sleep on a bare,
concrete floor. The jailers provide no food or bedding.
"Your family has to provide for you. If you have no family, you might
die," said Christopher Desamours, a 38-year-old Florida resident held at
the facility who was deported in April after serving 32 months in prison
for conspiracy to possess cocaine.
Buffed from prison weights and sporting earrings and fresh clothes, some
new arrivals project an air of superiority when faced with Haiti's
crushing poverty and underdevelopment.
But that attitude is soon displaced by loneliness and despair as they
struggle in an unfamiliar land without wives, children and other loved
ones back in the United States.
"I'm afraid," said Desamours, who left a wife and two daughters, ages 8
and 3, in Florida. "I want to see them. I am the only one who can
provide for them. They depend on me."
Felix and many other deportees struggle speaking Creole, Haiti's primary
language, because they immigrated to the U.S. as youngsters. Economic
opportunities also are rare in a nation where most people live on a
dollar or two a day.
Astrel Jacques, a 36-year-old deportee from Columbia, Md., said he
earned $9 an hour as a cook in the U.S. before he was convicted of
selling cocaine, served 6 years in prison and was sent back to Haiti in
"Where are you going to find a job at?" asked Jacques. "There's not
McDonald's in Haiti. There is no Burger King. This is reality."
Some sleep in parks
Some deportees end up sleeping in parks, while others lose their minds.
Frantz Laraque, a 53-year-old criminal deportee from New York, wanders
downtown Port-au-Prince telling people that he is the Messiah.
In the end, many deportees like Jacques and Felix live off the money
sent by family in the U.S., or by teaching English, doing odd jobs or
starting a business.
Ronald Michel, 27, and four other ex-cons founded a recording studio and
music store in Port-au-Prince that promotes rap and reggae.
A 2003 deportee from Spring Valley, N.Y., convicted of burglary, Michel
said he lost 45 pounds in his first year in Haiti because he had little
money and food. Michel thought about returning to a life of crime but
instead got into the music business.
"I don't see myself out here sticking people up and selling drugs," he
said. "I did that in the States because I was confused and young. We
don't make much, but I'm not starving."
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