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Anguished families cry “lage yo” as deported relatives languish in Haitian jails

Mabelle Casimir, sister of Jean Bertrang Casimir, addresses the group during the visit to the General Consulate of Haiti in New York on August 23, 2022. Photo by Leonardo March

NEW YORK —On a Sunday in July, Jean Bertrang called his sister Mabelle Casimir from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Texas for one of their two week chats. Bertrang had been transferred there after completing a 14-year prison sentence on a gun-related charge in November 2021.

But four days after the siblings’ conversation on July 17, Bertrang was in a prison cell at the National Penitentiary of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. It was his first time back in Haiti since he left the country 39 years ago, at age 4. 

“He is in jail when he didn’t do anything,” said Mabelle Casimir during a protest in front of the General Consulate of Haiti in Manhattan. “Haiti is his country. He never committed a crime there.”

Earlier this week, Mabelle Casimir and her sister Berline flew from Boston and Florida, respectively, to deliver a petition to the Haitian Consulate in New York. They had joined the families of 30 men who have been deported — among them Patrick Julney, Peterson Rosier, Billy Balisage, Saguens Bernabe and Metellus Peterson — and immigration rights activists to ask that the Haitian government let the men go. After handing over the petition, the pair joined about 30 in front of the building to protest what they called “illegal arrests” of the deportees.

Lage yo,” they chanted in Creole. “Let them go.” 

Relatives of several Haitian men currently jailed in Haiti after being deported talk to a staff member at the Haitian Consulate in Manhattan. The group of relatives joined a protest in front of the building. Video by Leonardo March

The plight of Haitians being jailed after serving prison sentences in the United States goes back years. A 2011 investigative story by The Center of Public Integrity, for one, shares details about the indiscriminate treatment of deportees, with or without U.S. convictions, being imprisoned in Haiti even though the country was suffering through the devastating 2010 earthquake.

In 2019, the year with the most recent data on removals, Homeland Security returned 724 persons to Haiti, 430 of them due to a criminal conviction. And even more recently, human rights advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, reported that at least 20,000 Haitians overall were deported since the beginning of 2021. Most were justified under Title 42, a health provision invoked to fight the spread of COVID-19. 

But deportation of people like Jean Bertrang Casimir are implemented under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. That law allows the U.S. to expel anyone convicted of a crime after the person serves out their sentence. 

So despite Jean Bertrang Casimir being a permanent U.S. resident, he became eligible for deportation. However, his incarceration in Haiti, as with many other Haitian deportees, falls under the jurisdiction of Haiti’s judicial system — which is itself embroiled in a crisis of dysfunction.

“We are very upset as family members because we have to deal with this, financially, emotionally,” Casimir said during a phone interview with The Haitian Times, a few days before the protest. “Not knowing if my brother is going to get up to see the next day. It’s absolutely something that it is very likely. Something that we think about every minute.”

Financial strain on top of emotional pain 

The deportees’ incarceration in Haiti has left families in the U.S. in much emotional strain. Relatives said they often don’t have any details about why their family is in prison. Plus, families now have the added responsibility of financially supporting the relatives’ basic needs in the Haitian jails.

“Everything, we have to pay for,” said Mabelle Casimir, “including the water that he drinks on a daily basis. Even the bucket for him to go to the bathroom, we have to buy. It’s extremely painful to even talk about.”

Their family spends around $100 daily on food expenses and other fees associated with delivering food to her brother. Other families say they spend around $500 per month, plus contributions from friends.

Maxis Derilus, who lived in Florida since arriving from Haiti at age 5, is among those in jail in Haiti since April 2022, after completing a 3-and-a-half-year sentence for a drug-related case. His cousin, Miguel Dorsan, an IT specialist, said no one has told them why Derilus, a father-of-two, is in jail.

“My mom – she is taking it hard right now,” said Dorsan, with whom Derilus grew up. 

“Just to see him gone has taken a toll on everybody in the family and it’s really affected everybody in my family right now and we just want to know why he’s being held in a prison,” Dorsan said. “Nobody has answers.”

Deplorable conditions in the jails, meanwhile, have also meant the families must provide money to help them access basics, such as water or food. A 2021 U.S. State Department report offers a detailed account of prisons in Haiti, including that they are without adequate plumbing, cells measure an average of 6-square-feet of space per occupant and lack of waste disposal.

Relatives have related horrifying stories told from the deportees. Among them, 30 to 40 men at the National Penitentiary share a cell, where occupants must use a bucket for their basic necessities. 

Keren Tripodi, sister-in-law of Bergson Morin said the 32-year-old electrician “buys a block of ice for $7 a day” that serves him as his daily drinking water. 

Morin, an electrician, was deported after serving a 5-year sentence last June 2022. He had left Haiti 28 years prior as a child.

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