MIAMI – Calling U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians “totally immoral,” Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami has urged “the powers that be” to grant temporary protected status to all Haitian migrants until the political and economic situation in their island nation stabilizes.
He also pleaded for the immediate release from detention of 101 Haitians – including 13 children – whose homemade sailboat washed up on Hallandale Beach March 28. One man died during the trip, which the migrants said took 22 days at sea, the last 12 without food or water. A U.S. Coast Guard official estimated the trip took about 12 days.
The migrants, some of them suffering from dehydration, are being held by the U.S. Border Patrol at several detention centers in south Florida.
Refugee advocates and immigration attorneys fear they will be moved elsewhere, far from relatives and a network of attorneys who could help them with their asylum claims.
“The church stands ready to make sure that these people have a place to go and people to take care of them while they make their claim,” Archbishop Favalora said during a press conference at the archdiocesan Pastoral Center March 30.
The archbishop has sent a letter to every member of south Florida’s congressional delegation, asking for “temporary protected status” for the Haitians and pleading for the release of the new arrivals. He also joined Haitians at a rally March 31 in front of an immigration processing center in Miami.
The archbishop highlighted the “unequal treatment” given to Haitians who arrive in south Florida and Cubans who make a similar journey through the Florida Straits.
Cubans who reach land are allowed to stay under the wet foot/dry foot policy enacted by the Clinton administration in 1994. Those intercepted at sea are usually returned to the island unless they demonstrate a “credible fear of persecution,” in which case they are sent to the Guantanamo Naval Base and repatriated to third countries.
“That injustice needs to be righted,” Archbishop Favalora said at the press conference. “If anybody risks their lives to come to this country by those means, I think they should get the same treatment.”
Surrounded by more than a half-dozen of the archdiocese’s Haitian priests, and with Cuban-born Miami Auxiliary Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez by his side, the archbishop called on “all the people who see the injustice here to do whatever they can to make their voices heard … to insist that they be treated equally.”
He called the situation a type of “apartheid,” and described it as “a dishonor to what we stand for as a nation of immigrants.”
“How can we remain indifferent in the face of these people who come to us in desperation?” said Bishop Estevez, who came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor under the 1960s Pedro Pan program which was coordinated by the Catholic Church in Miami.
While Cubans are granted entry because they are fleeing political oppression, Haitians are fleeing “economic oppression” and deserve “all the rights we have had,” Bishop Estevez said. “We cannot allow them to be treated as second-class citizens. We cannot leave them alone at this moment.”
Echoing his words, Brothers to the Rescue, a volunteer organization of pilots who patrolled the straits looking for Cuban rafters in the 1990s, called upon the community to gather at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity that weekend for a Mass and prayer vigil in support of the Haitians.
“There is no country more deserving of (temporary protected status) than Haiti,” said Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services, which has represented many Haitians in immigration proceedings and pledged to represent the Hallandale Beach group as well.
“I believe every one of them will pass a credible fear of persecution interview,” McGrorty said. “They should be released and allowed to pursue that claim in our community.”
Given the shortage of detention space due to roundups of undocumented immigrants with criminal histories, McGrorty called it “a misuse of our national security resources to keep these people in detention, and it’s frankly a waste of our tax dollars.”
As for deporting them, “It is in our national security interest to keep these people here working so that they can send home money to stabilize the Haitian economy,” McGrorty said. “We need a vibrant Haitian community here.”
A study commissioned by the World Bank, and published in March 2006, estimated Haitian remittances to relatives back home at about $1.17 billion a year, said Steve Forrester, senior policy advocate for Haitian Women of Miami, one of the groups represented at the press conference.
By sending people back to Haiti, “you’re cutting off the remittances that keep people in Haiti,” Forrester said. Temporary protected status for Haitians “is a win-win situation from every angle. It protects, not endangers, our borders.”