Miami-Dade County

Haitian boat survivors released from immigration custody

Four Haitian nationals who survived last week’s fatal smuggling trip have been released from U.S. immigration custody.

“The four,” said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Nestor Yglesias, “have been processed and are no longer in ICE custody.”

The Haitians were among 15 passengers traveling aboard an overcrowded 25-foot vessel that left the Bahamas for Miami. At 1:01 a.m. Wednesday authorities received a 911 cellphone call from someone aboard saying the boat was sinking. The group was eight miles from Miami. Four women, all Haitian, drowned.

U.S. federal authorities later took the 11 survivors into custody and charged six of them, including the boat’s captain and crewman, with attempted smuggling and returning to the United States after they had been deported. The government has now launched a criminal investigation into the incident and the four released Tuesday are witnesses in the case.

On Monday, Haitian activists and others, including Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, pleaded for the survivors’ release. They also asked immigration officials to provide the names so that relatives could be put at ease.

Yglesias said Tuesday the agency could not accommodate the request for names because they are not readily available. He declined to say where the survivors are or the status of a fifth survivor who is not Haitian.

Randy McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services, said he isn’t surprised by the release, just the timing. Since a massive earthquake struck Haiti in 2010 there has been a standing no-deportation order in the U.S. for Haitians except for those having a criminal record, McGrorty said.

“Haitians are getting released, it’s just taking a long time,” McGrorty said. “I am perplexed as to why they are keeping them so long. This was pretty quick.”

Both McGrorty and Miami’s Haitian Consul General, Francois Guillaume, noted that in the past year a number of Haitians who arrived illegally in Puerto Rico from Haiti have been either paroled in the U.S. territory or transferred to detention centers in South Florida and later released.

The route the Dominican Republic across the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico has become a favorite but dangerous route among Dominican smugglers who are increasingly getting into the lucrative Haitian smuggling trade. Another emerging route for Haitians seeking to get into the U.S. illegally, said McGrorty, is through California.

In the last year, he said, he has seen “a spike of several hundreds coming through San Diego…. Somehow they are getting to Mexico,” he added, saying that route has become a preferred one for Cubans.

The four Haitians released Tuesday do not qualify for Temporary Protected Status. That legal reprieve was granted to thousands of Haitians by the Obama administration after the earthquake and allows Haitians to legally live and work in the United States on a temporary basis.

The only recourse for those released is asylum, McGrorty said.

“They are difficult claims,” he said. “But we do have a steady stream of Haitians in courts.”