A family of three arrived together at the Nogales border crossing in December seeking refuge in the U.S. But after four days, the wife and daughter were released while the husband was locked up.
(Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)
ELOY — A detention officer handed Lemoine Denera a cardboard lunch tray. The 32-year-old migrant from Haiti took a look at the food and slid the tray away.
He hasn’t felt like eating since being locked up in a federal immigration detention center in the desert near Eloy, an hour’s drive south of Phoenix.
Because of his stomach problems, medial staff have placed him on a low-sodium, low-fat, high-fiber diet, which Denera finds unappetizing. That day he was served a slice of ham and American cheese between a hamburger bun, along with green beans, apple sauce and coleslaw.
He also suffers from a hernia, hypertension and a faulty heart valve. But he said the main reason he’s not hungry is because his detention by federal immigration authorities has separated him from his wife and infant daughter.
The family of three arrived together at the Nogales border crossing in December after traveling through Mexico seeking refuge in the U.S. They are part of a surge of Haitian migrants arriving at ports along the southern border after fleeing from Haiti to Brazil following the 2010 Haitian earthquake. After four days, his wife and daughter were released; Denera, meanwhile, was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and locked up.
His wife and daughter are now living with an aunt in the New York City area. It has been more than two months since he has seen them. Their only communication is by phone once or twice a week.
“I am suffering. I miss them,” Denera said, during a recent interview conducted in a conference room at the Eloy Detention Center. “Sometimes I try to talk, but when I hear my daughter crying, it’s not easy for me.”
Denera is one of about 4,000 Haitian migrants being held in immigration detention centers in Arizona and other states. Now he faces being quickly deported back to Haiti, while his wife and daughter remain in the U.S.
“That is one of the main issues that we are having is the fact that a lot of the women and children that were released, their husbands and fathers were sent home or are still in detention.”
Guerline Josef, Haitian Bridge Alliance
While the majority of Haitian migrants who have arrived along the southern border are men, there are many cases like Denera’s involving families that have been separated, said Guerline Josef, director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance in San Diego, an advocacy group.
“That is one of the main issues that we are having is the fact that a lot of the women and children that were released, their husbands and fathers were sent home or are still in detention,” she said. “So basically the family units are being broken, so it becomes really hard for them to survive. They don’t have that partner with them. They don’t have the father to help out.”
The possibility Denera will be deported is real.
Since November, the number of people deported to Haiti has risen rapidly, according to ICE data. The deportations reversed a longstanding policy of not sending Haitians without permission to be in the U.S., except criminals, back to Haiti while the country is still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The deportations resumed under former President Barack Obama’s administration. But immigrant advocates are concerned they will increase even more rapidly under President Donald Trump’s new executive orders on immigration, which call for expanding priorities for who can be detained and deported.
Through the end of January, ICE had deported 2,186 people to Haiti, according to data provided by ICE to The Arizona Republic. The number includes 204 individuals with criminal records, ICE said, or about 9 percent of the total.
In comparison, ICE deported 310 individuals to Haiti in all of fiscal year 2016, which ended on Sept. 30. The vast majority of the 2016 deportees, 267, were people with criminal records, or about 86 percent of the total.
Conditions in Haiti
The deportations to Haiti have alarmed immigrant rights advocates. They fear Haitians are being sent back to one of the most impoverished countries in the Western Hemisphere at a time when Haiti is still recovering from a string of calamities, and in the process separating families such as Denera’s. In addition to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was struck by a major hurricane in October. The country is also struggling to control an ongoing cholera outbreak that has killed more than 10,000 people.
“It’s obscene,” said Steven Forester, the Miami-based immigration policy coordinator at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, an advocacy group.
“The reason it’s obscene is that Hurricane Matthew just devastated a large part of Haiti.”
Steven Forester, Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
“The reason it’s obscene is that Hurricane Matthew just devastated a large part of Haiti,” Forester said, pointing out that Haiti was “already suffering” from the after-effects of the earthquake, and the cholera epidemic when Hurricane Matthew hit. The destruction is “as if a quarter of the United States had been leveled. It’s not safe to deport anyone to Haiti and it hasn’t been.”
What’s more, Forester said, many Creole-speaking Haitians currently being detained may qualify for asylum in the U.S. because of ongoing political turmoil in Haiti. But many of the detained Haitians may be unaware of their rights or have difficulty communicating their fear of persecution because of a lack of Creole-speaking interpreters and legal counsel in detention centers, he said.
“There has been a lot of repression and persecution in Haiti which caused many people to flee. The rule of law in Haiti is extremely weak,” Forester said.
In December, the Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami dispatched two Creole-speaking attorneys to the federal detention centers in Eloy and Florence, said Randolph McGorty, the group’s executive director.
The two lawyers held meetings over a week with about 400 Haitian detainees to inform them of their rights and determine if they might qualify for asylum, McGorty said.
To qualify, asylum seekers must first pass a hearing with an asylum officer who determines whether they have a “credible” fear of persecution if returned to their home country.
While a Creole-speaking interpreter is provided by phone for the hearings, migrants may be unaware of the process for requesting a hearing because of language barriers, he said.
“This is a very unsophisticated group,” McGorty said.
Deportations under Obama administration
When the U.S. suspended deportations to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, officials were concerned sending the immigrants back would put their lives at risk and could further destabilize the country.
But in September, the Obama administration announced the government would resume deportations in response to a sudden surge of Haitian migrants arriving at border crossings in Tijuana and other cities along the southern border, including Nogales, seeking refuge in the U.S.
A total of 6,426 Haitian migrants arrived at ports along the southern border in fiscal year 2016, according to Customs and Border Protection data. Another 7,129 have arrived since the start of fiscal year 2017 on Oct. 1, according to CBP.
Before the U.S. resumed deportations, a majority of Haitian migrants were detained for several days and then allowed to stay in the U.S. on what is called humanitarian parole pending the outcome of their immigration cases, said McGorty.
The Obama administration suspended the deportations again in October after Hurricane Matthew slammed into Haiti, causing more devastation. But in November, the Obama administration announced that deportations to Haiti had resumed once again, despite the country’s ongoing recovering from the hurricane, the cholera outbreak and the 2010 earthquake.
Jessica Vaughan says the renewal of deportations to Haiti is justified. She is policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group which favors lower levels of immigration.
Based on travel alerts and warnings issued by the State Department, she said she saw nothing to suggest “conditions are so serious that people cannot return there.”
“I am not surprised that advocates are objecting to deportations, but in this case their alarm does not seem to be warranted,” she said in an email.
She also believes few Haitians qualify for asylum.
“They would have to demonstrate that they have been persecuted or face a significant risk of persecution. Historically, few Haitians have been able to show that, although many have tried,” she said.
Denera, the Haitian migrant separated from his family, said he spends his days at the Eloy Detention Center thinking about his wife, Aline, 27, and their 5-month-old daughter, Leina.
He wishes he had a photo of them, but his clothes and belongings were taken away when he was processed at the detention center.
“But for me security is not possible in this situation. I won’t feel secure until I am with my family. That is my only desire, to be with my family.”
Lemoine Denera, migrant from Haiti
Medical staff at the detention center have given him medicine for his various ailments, but he said it takes a long time to see a doctor.
“The medical assistance for me is not that good because the doctors that help us, they are few and we are many,” he said.
He said generally he has been treated well by detention officers, and feels safe.
“Physically, yes,” he said. “But for me security is not possible in this situation. I won’t feel secure until I am with my family. That is my only desire, to be with my family.”
The Republic first met Denera and his family in December at the Rotary Club in Nogales, Sonora, which was hastily converted into a shelter by community groups to feed and house the sudden surge of Haitian migrants arriving daily at the border.
Most, including Denera and his family, had traveled to the border through Central America and Mexico from Brazil, where thousands of Haitians found work following the 2010 earthquake but left for the U.S. after the Brazilian economy collapsed.
At the time, Denera was agonizing over staying in Mexico or risking being separated from his family by seeking refuge in the U.S.
According to ICE officials, on Dec. 6 Denera presented himself to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales.
He was placed in removal proceedings after he failed to show valid or expired documents authorizing him to be lawfully admitted into the U.S., ICE said in a written statement.
A separated family
During the interview at the Eloy Detention Center, Denera said he and his wife and daughter were separated almost immediately after presenting themselves to U.S. border officers in Nogales. He was held in one room while his wife and daughter were held in another. They had no contact and only caught glimpses of each other on the way to the bathroom.
“I didn’t have the right to hug them. It was very hard for me,” Denera said. “We were held in same place but not allowed to have contact.”
He spoke in a mixture of broken English and Spanish, which he said he studied in school in Haiti.
After two days, he said, he was transferred to ICE custody and transported to the detention center in Eloy. He said that was the last time he saw his wife and daughter. After four days, he said, they were released and traveled by bus to New York.
The Republic sent his wife a photo of Denera taken during the interview. In the photo, Denera is smiling, and looks emaciated in a detention-issued denim jacket he wore over his gray detainee garb.
“I do not have the courage to look at him, I miss him so much,” his wife texted back in French.
“I believe in God. I want to stay here but if God doesn’t want it, it’s in God’s hands.”
During the interview, Denera said he thought he, too, would be released after five or six days, and then allowed to rejoin his family in New York. He doesn’t understand why that didn’t happen.
“I don’t know how the laws work here,” he said. “Some people have been released after a week or two. Others have been detained for a long time. It doesn’t make sense to us. Only the officials know. What I do understand is that each case is different. They need time to analyze your case.”
Denera said he explained to an asylum officer at the detention center why he can’t return to Haiti. In Leogane, the town where he is from, he worked as a neighborhood political activist.
Two years ago, he left Haiti and moved to Brazil, partly to find work and partly because he feared political “adversaries” might try to harm him.
“I went to Brazil for economic and political reasons,” he said. “But the main reason I left was for political reasons.”
He declined to elaborate.
“For the safety of my family in Haiti, I don’t want to talk too much about this,” he said.
Denera is still awaiting a final asylum hearing in front of an immigration judge. He doesn’t know when the hearing will take place. ICE officials declined a request to provide that information.
When asked how much longer he was prepared to be detained, Denera lowered his head.
“I believe in God. I want to stay here but if God doesn’t want it, it’s in God’s hands.”