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Quake survivors who landed in the US by chance are released

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-04-02

US authorities have released a group of undocumented Haitians who flew to the US in the chaotic aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and were locked up on arrival in Florida.

AFP - A group of Haitians who landed almost by chance in the United States without documents in the chaotic aftermath of the quake were released Thursday after several weeks in detention.

Some of the Haitians went to the Port-au-Prince airport looking for food, some for work.

Then, amid the chaos, US Marines waved them onto a plane. They were suddenly bound for the United States, with no documents or visas.

This is roughly what happened to more than 30 Haitians who found themselves at the international airport right after the January 12 quake, and were promptly locked up on arrival in South Florida.

However, after two and a half months in detention, 32 of the Haitians were released, said Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) executive director Cheryl Little.

Immigrant advocates and lawyers say the group includes mostly unrelated men and women who went to the airport as aid shipments poured in, and saw an unexpected, brief opportunity to leave the devastation.

One of them, for example, was waved onto a plane with family members who were US citizens, to accompany a child.

Many in the group are deeply traumatized, said FIAC statewide director Charu al-Sahli, who has worked closely with detainees.

Al-Sahli said one man lost his three-year-old daughter in the 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Another has had no news of his nine-year-old twins, while a third lost both parents.

"It's striking to me how many are clearly showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder," said al-Sahli, adding that one of the detainees has suffered several panic attacks in detention.

"It's been two and a half months that most of these people have been detained. They were waved onto a plane. They committed no criminal act."

FIAC had been asking the government for several weeks to release the Haitians into the care of relatives who are US citizens.

Ronise Augustin, of Hallandale, in South Florida, said she received a call early Thursday from her detained brother, Emmanuel Philogene, to say he was about to be released.

"He sounded so happy... I'm happy he's going to be with me," she said. But she said her brother, who lost his young daughter in the quake was "not doing okay. He's always crying."

Other family members were still missing. "A lot of people in our family, we don't see them. If you haven't seen someone, you lost them," she said.

One detainee told FIAC he had gone to the airport seeking work. He found a job loading planes and when he was asked to push a wheelchair-bound patient into an aircraft, he made a nervous, snap decision to stay aboard.

None of the detainees seemed to plan their US voyage.

Al-Sahli said they didn't bring any belongings and didn't carry phone numbers for US-based relatives, making it difficult to track them down.

The first 10 individualized release requests were sent to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on March 12.

US immigration authorities stopped deporting Haitians months before the earthquake hit, unless they had a criminal record. After the earthquake, the US suspended criminal deportations too.

Concerned over the prospect of a mass exodus after the Haiti quake, US immigration authorities are keeping a tight watch on the ocean routes that Haitians have used in the past to make a risky run at US shores.

The White House has extended a special immigration shield known as TPS (Temporary Protected Status) to Haitians, meaning undocumented Haitian immigrants can obtain work permits and legal status for the time being.

Date created : 2010-04-02

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