Washed Up

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...
Share this:

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."

Haitians have been leaving their half of the island of Hispaniola, about 700 miles from Miami, on boats for decades. Many left in the 1960s to escape the torture and killings perpetrated by François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his Tonton Macoutes thugs. When the dictator died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, continued the terror, and the exodus burgeoned. Some 25,000 Haitians arrived in South Florida around the same time as 125,000 Cubans during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. But because of the 1966 Cuban Readjustment Act, which gives residents of Fidel Castro's island special rights, the Cubans were allowed to stay while most Haitians were sent back.

In 1981, the Reagan administration ordered the Coast Guard to stop suspected Haitian boats and turn them around. It was believed that their languishing economy, not politics, brought them here. And that wasn't good enough for the U.S. government.

After Baby Doc was overthrown in 1986, political instability and related violence continued, then worsened after the democratic election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Taking office in February 1991, Aristide was violently overthrown seven months later. With Haiti three years into military rule, the United States led a 21,000-strong force that pried power from the regime and returned Aristide to power.

In the years that followed, American presidents continued to turn away Haitian boats. Starting in 2001, the federal government adopted a secret no-release policy for Haitians while asylum seekers of other nationalities were freed at a 91 percent rate, according to a Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center report. The second Bush administration gave the strange rationale that letting Haitian refugees in could stoke terrorism, since terrorists could pose as Haitian refugees.

"God help us all if our government can't tell the difference between a Middle Eastern terrorist and a Haitian boat person," Little says.

Despite Aristide's exit from the country in 2004 and recent political stability under President René Préval, Haitians have continued to flee widespread kidnappings and the destruction wreaked by hurricanes. Tropical Storm Jeanne left 300,000 Haitians homeless and 3,000 dead in 2004; it submerged parts of Port-de-Paix as well as the island of Tortue, from which the March ship departed.

Yet the U.S. government has not even extended temporary protected status to Haitians, which would allow them to stay in the United States while their country heals, although it regularly bestows that relief to natives of Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, where suffering has been less constant. "There's no question that Haitians fully qualify. It's completely senseless," says Steven Forester, a senior policy advocate at Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, or Haitian Women of Miami. "The reason they don't get it is blatant discrimination and racism and a lack of political power."

Daniel Batiste is one of 21 Haitians still locked in Broward Transitional Center. On November 1, his hair is short, and he wears federal-issued, neon-orange clothes, with white socks and leather sandals. Twenty-five years old, he is gawky and shifts his weight like an anxious teenager when greeting a reporter. Teased about not looking his interviewer in the eye, he glances up quickly and reveals a wide smile and a gap between his front teeth. He sits and folds his hands on his lap. His lanky legs stretch below the long wooden table in the fluorescent-lit room lined with books. Federal officials, who took nearly four months deciding whether to allow this interview, have given him only 30 minutes for the meeting.

Eyes cast down, Batiste begins his story in a soft but unwavering voice:

His family lives in a concrete-block, dirt-floor home in Port-de-Paix. His mother had 17 children; he was among a lucky handful that survived. His father worked construction until the man fell from a coconut tree. His parents made a living hawking secondhand clothes imported from the United States.

Batiste finished the tenth grade after sporadically attending school, he says. He had hoped to study film, but his family couldn't afford tuition. His older cousin, Wisler Telcy, a tailor, lived next door and gave Batiste small jobs, like pinning folds in trousers, in exchange for food. In 1995, Telcy fled Haiti by boat and settled in South Florida.

By 2001, Batiste was working for a political party to earn some money, he says. A few years later, his brother Jeremie became chief security guard for a local politician who belonged to Aristide's party, Lavalas. When Aristide was ousted in 2004, Jeremie went into hiding. Two years after that, Préval came to power and Jeremie returned to live with his family, believing his life was no longer in danger. On February 7, an angry mob came to the family's door around 9 o'clock. Jeremie answered.

"You were the one we were after. Come out," Batiste recalls hearing.

The mob hauled Jeremie out by his arms and legs, Batiste says. His father yelled "They took Jeremie!" to wake the house. He and his parents followed the mob into the street. A crowd watched as Jeremie was beaten with a club. Batiste ran to a neighbor's house to get help, he says. By the time he returned, his brother had been partly decapitated with a machete.

Batiste had trouble sleeping after that, he says, for fear that he too would be attacked. He went into hiding in a city on the north coast. Then he got on the fragile boat that ultimately brought him to Hallandale Beach. "I realized I was the only one left who could help my family," he says. "In Haiti, even if you finish school, it's not easy to find a job."

Others from that sea-crossing had similar tales of life in the hemisphere's poorest nation, recounted in interviews and federal documents obtained by New Times. Gerard, the orphaned boy who wandered the beach looking in vain for his brother (and who is not being identified by his real name), says his uncle made him work like a slave for years after his parents died. He was 16 when he escaped. Clebert Calixte, an election supervisor in his mid-20s from Tortue, says that his brother was beheaded in 1996 and that a local politician threatened to do the same to him.

Cerisma Federic says the leader of a political organization in Port-de-Paix sent men in black bandannas to his home to harass his family. Frannso Brutus, 32, says his politically active father was found dead, hands tied, head covered, and riddled with gunshots, in December 2001. Brutus denounced the murder on the radio, he says, and was kidnapped, twice, in retaliation. Decidel Blaise says a political gang burned his home.

Besides the same decrepit boat, what many of these Haitians seem to have in common is that they are victims of political violence.

If there are things that make life unendurable in Haiti, Haitians are going to come to the United States, says Forester, of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami. They know that people die at sea attempting it. "These are horrendous voyages. People don't make the decision lightly to get in a boat like that."

And the U.S. government will keep trying to dissuade them, says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez. "The U.S. government continues to discourage any type of illegal immigration," Gonzalez says. "Individuals who take to the sea are putting their lives at risk."

The federal government also apparently would prefer that the stories of people who run that risk are untold. In July, New Times submitted requests to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for interviews with detained Haitians from the boat that landed at Hallandale Beach. After almost weekly phone calls and emails, some interviews were finally set for November; by then, however, Federic, Blaise, and Calixte had been deported. And the agency still has not approved a request to interview Gerard, whose case is perhaps the most controversial.

In early March, in Port-de-Paix, a coastal city that spills into shantytowns, word came that a sailboat destined for Nassau would soon leave from Tortue, a nearby island.

On a map of Haiti, Ile de la Tortue is a crumb that hovers off the northwest coast, on the Windward Passage, facing Cuba. The island was known for its buccaneers in the 17th Century; the heritage of piracy and smuggling continues today, with the trade now being in people who are desperate to leave Haiti.

Batiste said goodbye to his mother, Françoise, in early March. She knew the trip was dangerous, but she encouraged him to go. "There's no opportunity here," he says she told him. "I'm not worried because I send you with God's supervision."

Batiste and about 40 others from Port-de-Paix paid a few dollars for a ferry to take them to Tortue, he says. Most passengers recall that their peeling red-white-and-blue boat left Tortue on March 6. Men, women, and children had gone aboard with just the clothes they wore and a small amount of food and water. Several Haitian men served as crew.

"On those boats, 99 percent of the time, you don't make it anywhere alive — but I figured that wherever I landed, God would show me a way to stay," said Frannso Brutus, who left behind a wife and three young children in Haiti. Still, had he known the boat's fate, Brutus said, "I would have definitely been afraid."

Batiste says he paid about $50 to buy provisions: rice, plantains, goat meat, fish, and 15 gallons of water. Brutus said he had no money to contribute; he boarded with a box of crackers and two Coke bottles filled with water. Many of the passengers say they did not pay for the trip. Family members speculate that smugglers might have planned to muscle them for payment once they arrived.

They were stuffed in the dank, windowless hull, they say, their arms and knees pressed together, with too little room to sit and not enough height to stand. When the sea rocked the boat, their backs and chests collided. Their skin became chafed, then stung by saltwater. It was a situation reminiscent of the slave ships that used to frequent Haitian waters. Still, Gerard recalled that he was relieved to see a familiar face — a brother from whom he'd long been separated. And passengers say that spirits were generally high for the first few days, as they sang folk songs, chatted, prayed, and shared food.

The crew — the smugglers — would let the passengers onto the deck, into fresh air, only if they had to relieve themselves, they say. In the hull, vomit and sweat mixed with seawater sloshed around their ankles.

With a good wind, they should have been able to make Nassau in two to three days, they say, and five days tops in worse conditions. But after five days at sea, they saw no land. "Whoever believed in God was praying to God," Brutus said, "and whoever believed in Satan was praying to Satan."

Now the mood shifted. People stopped sharing food. By the 15th day, most of the food and water was gone. They boiled a little rice with seawater, Batiste says, and he subsisted on that and toothpaste. Gerard said his long-lost brother had become delirious. Then, one morning, he was gone. Gerard thought he had either been murdered or committed suicide, and he was afraid.

Some passengers vowed to jump ship; the smugglers bound them with frayed ropes, passengers say. Those who became unruly or delusional were bludgeoned with hammers, boards, and bats. Some were forced overboard or killed themselves during those desperate days. After hearing reports of violence, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in June asked the U.S. Attorney's office to investigate. That office would not confirm an investigation.

The hellish voyage has since been woven, with magic and voodoo spirits, into the minds of some relatives. Miami pastor Jean Valsaint, who counts 11 relatives, including Gerard, among the passengers, says he heard that some passengers leapt from the ship but did not sink beneath the waves. They strolled across the sea, he says, shouting "goodbye!" and waving to those left on board.

On the last Saturday of March, Haitian flags and protesters filled the parking lot in front of Cool J's Urban Footwear on NE 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, across the street from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Office. Only three days had passed since the boat had landed on Hallandale Beach. The Haitian community was pressing the government to let the voyagers stay.

Activists on a stage barked messages in Creole and English through a megaphone. Hundreds of people danced and sang and drummed. A young woman in a sundress held high a sign that said "I CAME BY BOAT. TODAY I AM A U.S. CITIZEN, AND I VOTE."

Father Gérard Jean-Juste, who once was discussed as a candidate for president of Haiti, addressed the gathering: "Brothers and sisters, we thank all of you who since Wednesday have been supporting the Haitians who arrived by boat... They are good Americans. If only there were Americans in the White House like the ones who were on Hallandale Beach."

He began a chant: "What do we want?"

The crowd answered: "Freedom!"

Joyce Jennings had been attending demonstrations demanding fair treatment for Haitians almost since she arrived from Haiti by plane 32 years ago. "They're treated as criminals; they are treated like dogs," she said. "Other people come and they are welcome. We're not welcome."

Theresa Smith, a 47-year-old African-American woman, said she had been so moved by images on TV that she had come from Hollywood to attend the protest. She held a sign that read "FREEDOM NOW" on one side and "WE SHALL OVERCOME" on the other. "I was born in America," she said, "but I have ancestors who came from another country. And we came by boat. Let the Haitians go!"

"I hope this week we will see freedom for all our Haitian brothers and sisters," Jean-Juste said from the stage. "Otherwise, we will come back!"

But the hundreds of people who filled the street that day did not return.

Henry Petithomme, a 32-year-old Haitian-American, didn't surrender so easily. On April 4, the North Miami real estate agent wolfed down a Denny's breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon, and hash browns and then began a hunger strike. When he ran out of energy, he lay down on a cot behind the pews at the St. Paul Episcopal Church on North Miami Avenue, with a photo of his 2-year-old daughter nearby. His visitors included U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek (who did not return several calls seeking comment for this article).

After 15 days of not eating, Petit­homme's heartbeat was starting to flutter, a doctor warned. As middle-aged Haitian women in housedresses prayed over him, Petithomme could not muster the energy to make an announcement. His voice had sunk to a whisper. He handed a paper to a friend, who read, "I have been on a hunger strike for 15 days in protest of the American government's policy regarding Haitian refugees. The current immigration policy is unfair and discriminatory." He asked for the release of the refugees. Then blue-suited North Miami rescue workers took him to a hospital, where he recovered.

The day Petithomme went home, more than a hundred people attended a wake for Lifaite Lully, the man rescue workers dragged to the beach on March 28. It had taken several weeks to gain permission for the 24-year-old's mother, Isemaelite Vassor, to come from Haiti. She looked small and vulnerable as she entered the Monique and Loriston Community Funeral Chapel on West Dixie Highway in North Miami around 8 p.m. The room was nearly silent as she moved past walls decorated with scenes of Caribbean plantations, toward the bright lights of news camera crews and the casket. She walked slowly, dressed in a crisp, white, linen skirt and blouse and a matching broad-brimmed hat. She hadn't seen her son since he bid her farewell in Haiti.

Lifaite Lully was laid out like a dignitary, in a stainless-steel casket that cost $4,000. He wore shined, square-toed leather shoes, a taupe suit, and a silk tie. Even in death, he was handsome, with midnight-black skin.

When she reached the open casket, Vassor collapsed, wailing. Her hat tumbled to the ground, and she spread herself across the quieted body of her youngest son. The sorrow spread inside the room. A few Haitian women let loose loud sobs.

Emmanuel Vassor, Isemaelite's brother, steadied her. After the wake, he talked about his own clandestine boat trip to South Florida 14 years before. "For me, if my nephew paid a price for those people [on the boat], I accept that," he said. "The only thing that would make me feel better is if they let the other people go free."

Lully was buried the next day, marking an unofficial end to a month of protest.

Petithomme tried to sustain it. He started an organization, Youth Power Movement, and staged daylong hunger strikes. He dropped off toiletries for the detainees. "It's the same thing that always happens," he said. "It's visible for the moment and then afterwards, it's not the story that everybody wants to talk about anymore."

Tropical rains pelt the sheet-metal roof of the Batiste family home in Port-de-Paix when New Times calls in early November. Water pours through. It's been falling for days. The family survives on cornmeal and rice. They have no money to buy gas to light their lamps. Only Daniel could fix the inverter that provided electricity, they say. At night, they sit in darkness.

Daniel's mother hopes his immigration battle is over soon. "Tell Daniel things haven't gotten better here, but his sister just had a baby on Tuesday," François says. "But we don't have money to eat."

Since March, they've spoken to him about four times for a few minutes each time. There's only enough time to say "Hello. I'm alive. I miss you."

He hasn't mentioned that his asylum case was denied in late September.

"I hope the government and the president give him an opportunity to live in that country," François says in Creole. "We would be very thankful to the whole of the United States."

But Daniel will likely be deported to Haiti soon. An immigration judge didn't believe his story because he didn't relate his ordeal during his first contact with federal officials on the day he arrived.

More than half of the Haitian refugees who landed at Hallandale Beach have already been deported, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Fourteen minors were sent to a shelter and have since been taken in by family members or put into the foster care system. Unaccompanied child refugees can stay in the United States if they can prove abuse, neglect, or abandonment.

"I've seen a lot of detainees go," Daniel says at the Broward Transitional Center. "When they leave, we all cry, because one of these days we know it will be our turn."

One case that is particularly tangled is that of Gerard, who says his brother was killed on the ship. He and his 36-year-old first cousin, Jean Valsaint, say Gerard's father died before he was born. His mother breathed last when Gerard was a few months old. His grandmother believed his family was cursed after his older sister died. He was taken in by relatives. Daily meals and clothes were rarities. While other children in the home attended school, Gerard stayed home and cleaned.

By age 16, he was a father. The teenager decided to leave Haiti to provide for his baby girl.

"He looks like a minor. He acts like a minor," says Shannon LaGuerre, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center attorney representing him. "They should have let him go from the very beginning. This is a child."

Gerard's birth certificate, authenticated by the National Archives in Haiti, shows he was born in September 1990. But U.S. officials have tagged the document as potentially fraudulent. The government also points to dental and bone tests that peg his age as 20 years or older. LaGuerre say the tests aren't scientifically reliable. They are not admissible in federal court.

Judges often automatically conclude that Haitian documents are fraudulent, say several lawyers who handled the refugees' cases. Advocates admit there is a cottage industry of document fraud, but it's unfair to deem every document fake. "A lot of them had strong stories, but they didn't have basic things like birth certificates or police reports to substantiate persecution," says Callan Garcia of Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami, which handled about 20 cases. "They literally came only with the shirts on their back."

Asylum seekers from more stable, developed countries like Venezuela can be more successful in their claims, Garcia says, because they have supporting documents that look more authentic.

Many refugees withdrew claims after the first few were denied in July. They lost hope. They missed their families, homes, and food.

None of the lawyers could name a refugee from the Hallandale landing who had been granted asylum.

Part of the problem may be immigration Judge Rex Ford, who handled the refugees' cases. (His office cited a no-interview policy when New Times called for comment.) Ford, a Nova Southeastern University graduate, has the third-highest denial rate of Haitian asylum cases among Miami's 24 judges, according to TRAC Immigration, a Syracuse University records clearinghouse. Ford denied 97.6 percent of Haitian cases that came before him between 2000 and 2005. Those who were not Haitian fared better before Ford, who denied 90.5 percent of all his cases. Yet nationally, in 2006, federal statistics show Haitians had the highest number of asylum cases granted.

"The denial of asylum was expected," says Forester of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami. "It's Judge Rex Ford. I mean, that's the only answer. He was the only one hearing the claims."

Frannso Brutus, like Daniel, is among the few who remain in Broward. He chuckles and shakes his head when asked about his case, his wiry frame erect. Then his words come firm, his voice rising: "They haven't done anything for us. Since I came here, no one has gotten political asylum. But I'm a Christian, and my hope is with God."

A few miles down the road in Hallandale, a middle-aged waitress at a beer-and-burger shack, Mary Beth Bell, remembers the day the Haitians came ashore. "It was heartbreaking, gut-wrenching," she says. "I thought they wouldn't get sent back... I thought they'd get to stay. That really hit me." Had Bell known then what she knows now, she said, "I would have handed them 20 bucks and said, 'Go! Go!' "

KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.