Haitian immigrants detained at three South Florida immigration and customs enforcement detention centers represent the dozens of confirmed COVID-19 cases that additionally include staff members. Immigrants are neither criminals or citizens, and many are left bewildered regarding America being home of the brave or land of the free. Silence is not their collective cultural option, and a class-action lawsuit filed was filed April 13 on behalf of 58 detainees at Krome, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach (BTC) and the Glades County detention center in Moore Haven.
Haitian nationals risk being detained and deported if they have not applied for Temporary Protected Status. Rep. Frederica S. Wilson whose 24th congressional district is home to one of the largest Haitian communities in the U.S., spoke exclusively with the Miami Times on June 27 about the latest developments in her fight to protect these vulnerable constituents.
“About 40,000 Haitians are detained across the United States,” Wilson said. “They may have overstayed a VISA, never applied for TPS or await an asylum hearing to become a citizen.” Community activists who notify the congresswoman’s office on a regular basis, report that upwards of 25-30 Haitian immigrants are being deported every week.
According to Wilson, “Before the worldwide spread of COVID-19, President Trump said there would not be any deportations during a pandemic. Everyone was told to shelter in place, so if we’re sheltering in place, why are Immigrations and Customs Enforcement known as ICE, moving around and deporting Haitians, against what the order was? It’s just mean-spirited and vile because that’s how the president feels about immigrants. It’s wrong and it’s sinful. We have to fight him every step of the way.”
On June 6, U.S. District Judge Marcia P. Cooke agreed detainees would probably succeed in their claims that ICE is creating an increased risk of severe illness or death for detainees, which violates their rights under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. Cooke granted a preliminary injunction, citing ICE’s “deliberate indifference” in their failure to protect detainees and staff from COVID-19.
The injunction prohibited detainee transfers and mandated for ICE to comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for limiting COVID-19 transmission. Previous actions in this case include ICE’s filing with the court on June 4 detailing their plans to test all detainees at Krome and 21 other detention facilities, and an April 30 court order for ICE to reduce its detainee population at the three South Florida facilities from 1400 to 350.
“They take them from Krome and other detention sites across the nation … in buses to one airport [to be deported],” stated Wilson in response to conditions prior to Cooke’s June 6 orders.
“All of this transferring affects the people on the buses, in the planes, in the detention centers and the ICE officers. The virus is everywhere, so we’re exporting the virus to Haiti and they have no infrastructure to handle a pandemic.”
On June 25, ICE detainees testified that social distancing is impossible at the ICE facilities, and said ICE staff has provided insufficient cleaning supplies, does not refill bathroom soap often enough, and requires detainees to stand in lines with COVID-19-positive detainees to use shared water coolers and toilets and to get food.
Dexter Lee, arguing for ICE, defended the detainee transfers and explained since dozens of cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at all three facilities, officials decided to quarantine the entire facility. Judge Cooke indicated she may appoint an independent factfinder to check conditions at the three South Florida ICE detention centers.
Working with activists and immigration attorneys, Wilson’s office helps many Haitian constituents, sometimes even having them removed from planes just in time to prevent their return to Haiti. But her team couldn’t keep up with the pace of the crisis, so Wilson was compelled to introduce the Haitian Deportation Relief Act (H.R. 6798) on May 8.
“Our concern is there are many people in detention centers that have tested positive for the virus,” said Wilson. “They’re being deported to this very fragile country that can’t handle it. That is what this bill is about.”
On May 29, several supporters explicated rationales in support of H.R. 6798 during a virtual forum hosted by Wilson and titled, “An Impending Crisis: COVID-19 in Haiti, Ongoing Instability, and the Dangers of Continued U.S. Deportations.”
Among the participating representatives was Eliot Engel (D-NY-16), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, who presented his case for the bill, along with experts in foreign policy, economics, healthcare, immigration, and community development.
Leonie Hermantin, director of development, communications and strategic planning for Sant La Community Centers in Miami, described the medical infrastructure of Haiti. According to Hermantin, Dr. Jean William Pape, co-chair of Haiti’s multi-sectorial pandemic management commission, determined the following:
“The worst-case scenario will require 9,000 beds, and we will have over 400,000 hospitalizations. Currently in Haiti, national and private labs are overwhelmed, testing is limited and community spread is happening exponentially. There are less than 1000 beds available for COVID-19 cases.”
In Wilson’s concluding address to her colleagues, she stated, “Hopefully, we will leave this forum with an understanding of not only the need to stop deportations but also how to help make Haiti whole. Otherwise, I fear that Haiti’s collective problems, which have undoubtedly been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, will lead to the island nation’s collapse. I will continue fighting to ensure that the U.S. and its allies do not lose sight of the bigger picture.”
The House reconvenes for virtual committee work July 6 and the Senate returns to Washington July 20. H.R. 6798 was referred to the Judiciary Committee because ICE is a policing agency, but that committee has a full plate with the George Floyd policing bill, the reparations bill, and much more. However, the Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Mr. Engel and the Western Hemisphere ranking member Mr. Gregory Meeks (D-NY-5) were on the forum.
“We might petition for it to be moved to the Foreign Affairs Committee,” said Wilson who believes the latest developments with the class-action will propel her legislation forward. “We are fighting for that now, to get it on the agenda,” she added.
Wilson is further encouraged by senate sponsorship now to give the bill even more strength. Senator [Edward] Markey of Massachusetts is a firm supporter, so the congresswoman believes her team is gaining momentum amid this catastrophic order that this president has given to ICE.
“We have the courts, public opinion and activists on our side,” Wilson affirmed. “America is on our side.”
If concerned citizens want to help champion H.R. 6798, Rep. Wilson invites their advocacy.
“They should put pressure on Mitch McConnell in the Senate, on the [U.S.] Senators who represent them and on the White House,” said Wilson. “If they can write, tweet, call, Facebook, or Instagram their feelings about this punitive, racist move that was orchestrated amidst a pandemic, we would appreciate it.”
When asked if she had any other constituent advice, Wilson responded without hesitation, “Wear a mask.”