Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — When longtime Los Angeles resident Wilberle Vereus arrived in Haiti after being deported from the United States, he was taken to the Petionville jail above Port-au-Prince and placed in a 20-by-10-foot cell along with three other deportees and a group of Haitian prisoners.
Vereus, 22, had committed no crime in Haiti.
“We walked into the jail, and the first thing I smelled was urine,” Vereus said. “They threw us in a jail that had no beds, no toilets, no shower, nothing but just concrete. It had a little toilet bowl that didn’t work that had urine and trash and all that stuff up in there.”
Vereus was only 2 years old when his family fled Haiti on a boat following the 1991 coup d’état of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But after a U.S. immigration judge sent him to Haiti this year, Vereus found himself back where he was born, in a country he barely knew.
But he is not alone. Since January, the United States has deported more than 250 Haitians knowing that one in two will be jailed without charges in facilities so filthy they pose life-threatening health risks. In recent years, immigration officials have stepped up deportations of legal immigrants like Vereus because of criminal convictions.
One deportee to Haiti who arrived in April suffered from asthma, hypertension, diabetes, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and head trauma, among other ailments. That same month, the United States deported a mentally ill immigrant whose psychiatric medications were lost by Haitian authorities after his first day in jail.
“What’s distinct about the situation in Haiti is that, unlike in other countries, people are immediately jailed, and the conditions in Haitian jails are condemned universally for violating human rights,” said Rebecca Sharpless of the University of Miami Law School Immigration Clinic, which helps immigrants appeal deportation orders.
High health risks
The health risks for incarcerated deportees have increased significantly since a cholera outbreak, which began in October 2010, infected about 470,000 people and killed more than 6,500, including some prisoners.
International health experts say deportees in Haiti’s jails are at risk of contracting cholera, which can spread rapidly in overcrowded cells that lack clean water, soap and waste disposal. Once exposed, cholera victims can die in less than 24 hours.
In January, 34-year-old deportee Wildrick Guerrier, whose Florida criminal record included convictions for battery and possession of a firearm, died from what doctors described as cholera-like symptoms two days after being released from the holding cell where he became ill.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the agency resumed deportations to Haiti because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring detainees to be released after 180 days. That requirement, they said, would have placed “some detained Haitian nationals with significant criminal records into U.S. communities, which in turn poses a significant threat to the American public.”
Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the agency would “prioritize those who pose the greatest threat to the community.”
According to an April memo from the agency, detainees would be prioritized “through the consideration of adverse factors, such as the severity, number of convictions, and dates since convictions, and balance these against any equities of the Haitian national, such as duration of residence in the United States, family ties, or significant medical issues.”
But interviews in Haiti uncovered at least three deportees arriving in August and September who were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, and three-quarters of all Haitian deportees in recent years had no criminal convictions at all, according to immigration records.
A review of federal data shows ICE deported at least 2,684 noncriminal immigrants to Haiti from 2007 to 2010. As recently as 2008, 74 percent of all Haitian deportees did not have criminal convictions, according to the data. In the three months leading up to Haiti’s earthquake, 67 percent of deportees were noncriminals.
Haitian authorities said they place about half of all deportees in jails to monitor what they term “serious criminals” – a largely arbitrary determination. These detentions, which have lasted as long as 11 days, violate Haitian law and United Nations treaties when deportees have not been charged with crimes in Haiti.
One day after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake destroyed much of Haiti’s capital, the U.S. government suspended deportations. Since then, the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have lobbied countries to halt deportations due to worsening conditions in Haiti.
Still, the Department of Homeland Security resumed deportations to Haiti on Jan. 20, 2011 – the same day the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning urging Americans to avoid Haiti due to health risks and lawlessness.
Typical U.S. childhood
Vereus had a typical American childhood, attending school and playing sports. But at the beginning of his senior year at Inglewood High School, he and a friend stole iPods from a group of teenagers near South Bay Galleria in Redondo Beach, shooting a BB gun at them as they walked off.
While he served a three-year prison sentence for robbery, Vereus was admitted to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection program in which inmates train and then work alongside fire departments to battle forest fires and assist on routine calls. But seven days before his March 2010 parole date, Vereus was informed that he would not be released after all.
Vereus said the threat of deportation did not occur to him or his friends.
“They never talked about deportation – they were Americans. It was a subject that never came up,” Vereus said. “I never thought I could get deported because I was a legal permanent resident. I’ve been in the U.S. so long, I never thought deportation would ever be a problem.”
Meanwhile, Vereus says it is challenging to adjust to life in a foreign country. “I really don’t go anywhere – I just talk on my phone,” he said.
Vereus said he hopes to get a Haitian driver’s license to work as a motorcycle taxi driver and eventually save enough money to buy a car. His brother, Fritzner, visited him at his new home in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, where Wilberle Vereus now lives with family members.
But for his California family, there is little consolation. Because Haitian authorities forbid Vereus from making a phone call when he arrived in Haiti, his family didn’t find out he had been deported and jailed until a reporter contacted Fritzner the next day.
“I told my mom, but she fainted and had to go to the emergency room,” Fritzner said. “I had a heavy heart for a couple days knowing that he’s gonna suffer.”
Reporter Jacob Kushner produced this story for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, with additional reporting for California Watch. His research was supported by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Investigative News Network.
This article appeared on page A – 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle