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Swami Lalitananda planned to hit the gym this past March 28. But then she decided on an early-morning stroll along Hallandale Beach.
She crossed A1A and watched the 15-mph winds whip white caps offshore. A few minutes later, shortly after 8 a.m., the blue-eyed, 64-year-old, retired teacher spotted dozens of people plunging into the surf from a tiny wooden boat with a shredded sail and tipping mast. They slapped at waves and scrambled to shore.
She stopped dead. From the line of luxury high-rises to her left, residents used binoculars to spy the scene unfolding below. A few feet away, two policewomen waded into the waves to fish out the motionless body of a gaunt black man. He wore blue plaid boxer shorts and a ripped mesh basketball jersey. The rescue workers laid him on his back. His feet pointed to the east.
Lalitananda said a prayer: "God, if there's any life in him, let him be resuscitated. Let him know that he really reached his goal — the shores of America."
Nearby, Gerard, a young orphan, trudged through the chop to the beach and began pacing, looking for his older brother, Charles, who had disappeared during the voyage. Gerard clung to the hope that Charles had been locked away somewhere on the boat. Then two crew members, he would later claim, saw him and growled, "We'll kill you if you tell anyone your brother died."
Daniel Batiste, 25, also waded ashore. Batiste had assumed his death would come before this. It was the first land he had seen in 22 days. Where am I? he thought as he joined dozens of other dazed Haitian men, women, and children on the sandy beach.
Rescue workers shepherded Gerard, Batiste, and 98 others from the environs of the opulent condo towers of the Beach Club to the fire station and draped them, shivering and bruised, in white blankets. They were offered water and dry clothes to replace garments that reeked of fuel.
Lalitananda left the scene too, but she kept looking back at the corpse on the beach. He must have been a very good soul, she thought.
He was Lifaite Lully, a 24-year-old Haitian. Pronounced dead at 8:15 a.m., his body was covered with a white sheet.
Soon, the flimsy boat wobbled off the sandbar and ran aground on the beach. Authorities found one refugee on board, in shock and tightly grasping two ropes.
The men, women, and children had boarded that 40-foot sailboat to escape curses, slavery, political slaughter, and hunger. Smugglers crammed them into the hold, along with concrete bags to prevent capsizing. They lost their way and, after food and water were exhausted, survived for a week on Colgate toothpaste, salty rice, and seawater. Right minds wafted to sea. Those on board claim crew members bludgeoned some passengers and killed one, maybe more, before they finally made it ashore — the largest landing of Haitians in the continental United States since October 2002, when more than 200 migrants arrived in Key Biscayne, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
When they touched land, local Haitians and advocates sprang into action. A 15-day hunger strike, a massive street protest, and headlines across the country demanded fairness for the troubled souls. Then the noise stopped.
For the past eight months, bewildered family members have watched as the government has warehoused their loved ones in secrecy, behind barbed wire in Pompano Beach, and sent them back to Haiti one by one. Prayers to God and voodoo spirits haven't saved them. Nor have immigration lawyers.
"The whole world saw them on the TV," says Cedelia Calixte, a 28-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident. Calixte is the godmother of one, a man in his 20s who was deported on Halloween. Family members have not heard from him since, she says. "They put them away like they were going to do something — and when everybody was sleeping, they sent them away piece by piece."
From some angles, the Broward Transitional Center on Powerline Road in Pompano looks like the Quinta Inn it was supposed to become before the government took over and opened it in 1998. People lounge on benches. Soda machines and pay phones punctuate outdoor hallways. Balconies face a courtyard with a shoddy putt-putt course, a place where you can imagine Midwestern families lying slathered in sunscreen. But here, pay-per-view is not an option. Small rooms fit six in bunk beds. A line of hundreds of refugees in crossing-guard orange snakes through halls and spills outside at mealtimes. Fences at least ten feet high topped with barbed wire divide women from men.
Four hundred men and 200 women live at the center, awaiting immigration court decisions on their petitions for asylum. Asian, Latin, and Eastern European faces are sprinkled throughout. Five months after the landing at Hallandale Beach, a few of the Haitians from the March 28 boat remain. Many have already been sent back to a country corroded with crime and poverty.
"Every time I say 'Things can't get worse for the Haitians,' they do, so I've stopped saying it," says Cheryl Little, executive director of Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which handled 37 of the Hallandale refugees' cases. "There have been so many harsh measures directed at Haitians, it's hard to envision an end in sight."