U.S. immigration officials freed at least 33 Haitians on Thursday who were detained after being evacuated from Haiti following the January earthquake. An immigrant advocacy group in Florida has criticized the detentions, saying it highlights how the U.S. immigration system is struggling to deal with the quake's aftereffects.
Volunteers for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami say they were the first to discover that dozens of Haitian evacuees were being held in a Florida detention center. During interviews at the facility, the Haitians said they were waved aboard U.S. military planes that left Haiti during the aftermath of the devastating January earthquake. While most Haitian evacuees were released to family members living in the United States or offered temporary assistance, several were detained.
According to Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, one such person was a 23-year-old man whose parents died in the quake, leaving him the sole guardian of his teenage sister. "He was waved onto a military plane by Americans and brought here, and immediately detained upon arrival. And during his detention, he was not only prevented from helping his sister, but he also didn't even know where she was," she said.
Little says legal advocates filed release requests for the man and several other Haitian evacuees who were brought to the United States and then detained.
In addition to the 33 people released on Thursday, Little says several more are expected to go free soon.
She says the detentions are troubling because none of the individuals had criminal records, and that they were not accused of illegally entering the country.
In many cases, Little says, Haitians who had lost everything in the quake were unable to provide documents needed to enter the United States. "That would be perfectly understandable. But if they were told to board planes, that is something someone in a desperate situation might do," she said.
A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that a number of Haitians are being held and will be released as officials determine whether they are eligibile for temporary residency in the United States. Officials say the focus of the detentions is to block entry to the United States by anyone using fradulent documents or anyone who is ineligible for residency.
Little says the detentions are just one problem with the U.S. immigration system, as it struggles to cope with the strain caused by the earthquake. She says some Haitian-Americans who have been granted visas to bring family members from Haiti are still waiting for relatives to enter the country. "And yet those family members in Haiti have no home, no shelter, very little food, and are barely surviving. If our government does not do something, they could remain there for years before reuniting with their loved ones," she said.
Thousands of people were carried on military or medical evacuation flights to the United States in the weeks after the January 12 quake. Since the quake, U.S. officials have suspended deportations of Haitians.