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R.I. Haitian-American leaders call for end to deportations

“By deporting people during these times, you are sending people into danger,” Providence Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune says

Bernard Georges is the founder and executive director of New Bridges for Haitian Success.
Bernard Georges is the founder and executive director of New Bridges for Haitian Success.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Haitian-American leaders in Rhode Island are calling for the federal government to stop deporting undocumented people to Haiti amid a surge in kidnappings, gang violence, and political turmoil there.

“Haiti is going through a human rights and political crisis,” said Bernard Georges, founder and executive director of New Bridges for Haitian Success, based in Providence. “There has been a huge increase in violence, killing, kidnapping, rape, and oppression.”

Yet the United States has deported or expelled more than 1,000 Haitian people — including hundreds of children — since Feb. 1, Georges said, citing news reports. And now, undocumented Haitians in Rhode Island are worried that a knock on the door will thrust them back into a world of chaos and danger, he said.

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“They are living in fear. Some are just staying in the basement. They are hiding. Even those with sick children don’t want to go out,” Georges said. “We are calling on the Biden administration to stop deportations to Haiti immediately.”

On Friday, US Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, urged the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to visit the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming that thousands of migrants are spreading the coronavirus while being detained in overcrowded facilities. Graham said migrants are staying “on top of each other” and are being “dumped off in Texas” and elsewhere in the country.

But Georges said the country should be able to address COVID-19 screening and testing without automatically deporting those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, including Haitians, before they have a chance to apply for asylum. “This is not the notion of our America,” he said.

On March 25, a coalition of immigrant rights groups issued a report, titled “The Invisible Wall,” that contains the Haitian deportation estimates.

Nearly all of those expulsions are taking place under Title 42, part of a 1944 public health law that former president Donald J. Trump’s administration invoked to expel immigrants to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the report says. While health experts argued that “denying protection to migrants does little to protect public health,” Trump’s immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, pressed for the Title 42 restrictions, the report says.

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President Biden’s administration tried to place a moratorium on deportations of immigrants already in the country, but a federal judge in Texas blocked that moratorium and, in any case, the moratorium would not stop Title 42 expulsions of new arrivals, the report says.

The Biden administration has promised to review the situation, but the Title 42 policy remains in place, and as a result, “more Haitians have been removed per the Title 42 policy in the weeks since President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office than during all of Fiscal Year 2020,” the report says.

The chaos in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, has grown amid allegations of a coup attempt and clashes between factions and their proxies, including street gangs that control large parts of the capital city.

Providence City Councilwoman Nirva R. LaFortune, the first Haitian-American to hold elected office in Rhode Island, said she was 3 years old when her parents fled Haiti because of the oppression and corruption of former president Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s regime.

Providence City Councilwoman Nirva R. LaFortune.
Providence City Councilwoman Nirva R. LaFortune.Courtesy of Nirva R. LaFortune

“My parents left Haiti during political turmoil, and we are seeing it occurring again now,” she said. “By deporting people during these times, you are sending people into danger.”

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While she is a US citizen now, LaFortune, 38, said she was undocumented when she first arrived, so she could not travel with her parents when they returned to Haiti to do missionary work. She recalled wrapping her arms around her father’s legs at the airport, begging him not to leave because she feared she’d never see him again. So she said she can relate to the anxiety that families face when they are separated by deportations.

LaFortune noted that the Title 42 program was invoked by the Trump administration and that Trump reportedly referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” during a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators at the White House.

“No one wants to leave their home country,” she said. “It’s because of fear. They are giving up everything. People take on these dangerous journeys to seek freedom, to seek safety, to seek a better opportunity for themselves and their families.”

LaFortune, a Democrat, said she hopes Biden succeeds in enacting immigration policies that provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people. “If they are not people who committed a crime, why not give them the option to become documented – a pathway for citizenship – if they’re contributing to society and engaged with their communities?” she said.

Pastor Miche Desvalon, of the Ebenezer Nazarene Church in Pawtucket, said Haitian-Americans in Rhode Island are concerned about the deportations because of the conditions in Haiti.

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“It is very unsafe to be there right now, especially for kids,” he said. “There is kidnapping, insecurity. There is no justice right now. It is chaos.”

In Rhode Island, undocumented Haitians fear to go outside because they worry they’ll be picked up and deported, Desvalon said. “Some have families to feed, but they are afraid to go out freely,” he said.

Desvalon urged federal authorities to reverse course soon on the Title 42 deportations. “I hope the government takes the situation in Haiti seriously and gives those people green cards or citizenship,” he said. “They are good citizens. They come here and work and do whatever they have to feed their families.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.