The three strangers sat inside the Miami conference room reliving the details of the phone calls, which alerted them to be on the look-out for relatives in the coming days. Each would be arriving in Miami by boat from Abaco in the Bahamas, the callers said.
Five days later, no niece, no nephew, no daughter and no word about whether any of them are among the living — or the dead.
“We are suffering a lot because we don’t know where they are,” said Dieudonne Alcinor, whose niece Ysena Alcinor had sent word that after eight years, she was leaving the Bahamas with her three-year-old daughter and coming to Miami aboard one of two boats leaving Abaco.
One of those boats capsized Wednesday eight miles from Miami. Four of the 15 passengers, all Haitian women, drowned. The other boat was intercepted at sea that same day by the U.S. Coast Guard just a mile off Lake Worth. All of its passengers survived. Most have since been repatriated to Haiti.
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On Monday, Dieudonne Alcinor and others who were expecting relatives called on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help them find peace.
They want to know, they say, who was aboard the boats and are asking federal authorities to release the five survivors of the ill-fated smuggling trip who are not facing smuggling-related charges.
“These refugees are traumatized,” said Marleine Bastien, founder of Haitian Women of Miami, who was joined by Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat in her appeal. “They have suffered enough.”
Nestor Yglesias, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the agency doesn’t make names “readily available.” He also noted that the capsized-boat incident is now part of an active criminal investigation.
Meanwhile, U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo confirmed that a 25-foot vessel was picked up on the same day the other boats capsized. Two individuals were arrested and 23 others — all Haitians — were returned to Haiti Monday.
Bastien and other Haitian immigration activists say it’s time for the Obama administration to end the different treatment of Cuban and Haitian migrants.
“It is a disgrace that we have a double standard here,” said Jack Lieberman, a founder of the Haitian Refugee Center. “Cubans who step foot on U.S. soil get asylum and Haitians get sent back, put in concentration camps… and then sent back with no due process.”
As he spoke, about 20 Haitians held up signs protesting the administration’s policy and calling on it to “End Deportations Now.”
Relatives said they did not encourage their loved ones to make the dangerous voyages, but they understand why they do so. They joined with activists in calling on Haitian government officials to stabilize Haiti and build hope in the country to keep people off the high seas.
“Hunger and misery are making people take the boats,” said SaintAnna Similiel, who was told a nephew, who lived in the northwest Haitian city of Port-de-Paix, had decided to take the chance to make the dangerous voyage. “There is no work.”
Parts of Haiti are still struggling to recover from the January 2010 earthquake, several regions are still reeling from last year’s severe storms and a drought, and food prices are rising. The United Nations humanitarian agency said Monday that while conditions are improving, more than a half million Haitians still suffer from severe hunger. Meanwhile, 2.4 million Haitians still don’t have enough food to eat.
Bastien said activists plan to protest outside the Broward Transitional Center at 7 p.m. Thursday, where they believe survivors are being detained.