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17997: (hermantin)Sunsentinel-Orphaned Haitian refugee savors his freedom (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Orphaned Haitian refugee savors his freedom

By Tanya Weinberg
Staff Writer
Posted January 18 2004

Saturday, Ernso "Ernesto" Joseph, did not have to get up at 4 a.m. and skip
breakfast to visit with his uncle. The morning after his release from
federal immigration detention, the orphaned Haitian refugee rose at his
leisure and joined his uncle at the family breakfast table.

Digging into fish fillet and grits, the quiet teen remarked that it was the
first time he'd eaten real food since Oct. 2, when he entered detention for
the second time. The first time had lasted eight months, after he and more
than 200 other Haitian refugees sailed into Biscayne Bay on Oct. 29, 2002.

Saturday, Joseph said he did not believe there would be a third time. But
his case is unresolved, as the government and his legal representatives
wrangle over his age.

"We won the battle, but we haven't won the war," said Cheryl Little,
executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center that represents
Joseph pro bono.

Center staff say Joseph is 16, that they have amassed ample evidence to
prove it, and that an orphaned minor who arrived unaccompanied by an adult
should not be deported to Haiti. The Department of Homeland Security says
their investigation continues, and that although they have released Joseph,
they could still deport him if they determine he is an adult. They have
ordered him to report to immigration offices in March.

"We're glad he's been released, which is very important given his fragile
mental health," Little said. "I think it's nothing short of miraculous, and
it appears the only reason he was released is that DHS officials had
apparently mistakenly sent the message that he was going to be released."

Friday morning a DHS official contacted Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Miami) to
inform him Joseph would be released. Another DHS official later sent an
email to Meek's office explaining that it had been a mistake. A Meek aide
followed up and said she was told that the error resulted when the word
"not" was dropped from an internal DHS email that said Joseph would be
treated as a child. Meek was livid and called on the Haitian community to
speak out. Late Friday afternoon DHS officials announced that they would
again release Joseph. DHS spokeswoman Ana Santiago declined to answer
questions Saturday and referred to an official statement released the
previous day.

It read in part: "We hope to have the matter resolved in the near future.
However, as we seek final resolution to the conflicting statements made by
Mr. Joseph, we have determined that he can be released in the custody of his
uncle, as a good faith effort. We feel that this is the most humane route at
this time."

On his first day of renewed freedom, Joseph went to the barber shop with a
family friend. He returned to his uncle's Miami Gardens home and spoke on
the phone with his godmother in Fort Lauderdale. He wore a new T-shirt with
a picture of Martin Luther King. "Let Freedom Ring," it said.

"Look at him, he's happy," said Adelphin Pierre, his uncle.

Pierre called his nephew's detention and redetention "child abuse" at the
hands of the U.S. government. He said he could not imagine that the
government could detain him a third time or deport him.

"I'm still optimistic," he said. "Positive things can be done."

For the previous three and a half months Joseph was kept alone in a locked
hotel room guarded by immigration guards. He said he sometimes drew pictures
of airplanes and helicopters and once made a paper model of the building
where he was confined. He said the guards liked it and that he gave it to

He hardly watched television, because it hurt his eyes. And when he looked
out the window he said he focused only on the same pressing thought.

"I just thought about getting out," he said in Creole as a friend
translated. "I thought if they deported me to Haiti I'd rather be dead than
face the same misery."

Tanya Weinberg can be reached at tweinberg@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5029.
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At the barber shop
See larger image
(Sun-Sentinel/Mike Stocker)
Jan 17, 2004


Copyright  2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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