"My parents are poor. I have four children, a wife, and two younger sisters in Haiti who are my responsibility." Gerard, who had arrived in the United States Sept. 21 from one of the world's poorest nations, sat in an office in the crowded Haitian detention center at the edge of the Everglades. He is one of the estimated 1,000 Haitians a month who arrive on Florida's shores.
US officials are increasingly determined to stem this illegal migration, and, when possible, return the Haitians to their island home. That determination includes a plan to send Coast Guard ships out to intercept the boatloads of refugees.
This plan could take effect within 10 days, according to Justice Department spokesman Tom Stewart. He points out that the biggest step toward its unplementation, the signing of a bilaterial agreement with Haiti, has been completed. But some members of Congress have criticized the plan, and Ira Kurzban, a Miami attorney for the Haitians, contends the plan is "unworkable, impractical, -- and illegal."
If it is implemented, it could affect thousands of Haitians who, like Gerard, find themselves caught in the crunch between their aspirations for a better life and the growing US determination to control the flow of refugees across its borders.
Gerard explained to this reporter why he had risked his life to come to the US, enduring a 21-day boat trip during which water and food ran out.
He and seven other members of his family live in a single, small room in Haiti, he said in French. Although he had found occasional work as a painter for about $4 a day, he was usually unemployed eight months of the year. In recent months, he said, his boss had even been refusing to pay him what little he did earn.
As Haitians continue to arrive in the US, they are being sent to federal detention facilities in a number of states, pending deportation hearings. Some Haitians soon may be detained in Glasgow, Mont., where the climate will mean a big adjustment for refugees from perpetually warm Haiti.
The US wants to send Gerard, and almost all the other Haitians here illegally , back home, insisting they face no retribution by the Haitian government for having left. Attorneys for the Haitians, however, and a US district court judge, say the returned Haitians face possible imprisonment and torture for having left Haiti illegally.
Under US immigration law, people not facing punishment upon return may be deported if they came for economic and not political reasons. Cubans, US officials say, face retribution and therefore are allowed to stay regardless of why they come.
When told the government might send him back, Gerard looked stunned. "It was a sacrifice to come here," he said. He explains that he paid what amounts to a small fortune to Haitians like himself -- $500 -- for the trip here. That is more than many Haitians earn in a year.
For the moment, Gerard and more than 1,100 other Haitians are locked up in a small complex of buildings designed, says the INS, for less than 600 people in normal circumstances. On a tour of the facility, this reporter saw beds crowded close together. Showers are open only two hours a day, Haitians said. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials cited limited sewerage facilities as the reason. Legal Services of Miami has filed suit alleging inhumane conditions in the detention camp.
Deportation hearings are under way here and will be held for the approximately 1,500 other Haitians now held at other prisons. President Reagan has said he intends to ask Congress for legislation qualifying Haitians who arrived before Dec. 31 for a special amnesty to stay in the US.
Mr. Kurzban, an attorney for the Haitians and for the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, has filed a suit in federal court alleging lack of due process in deportation hearing's against Haitians. Attorneys sometimes get no more than one or two minutes to prepare cases in deportation hearings, says Miami attorney Steve Forrester.
E. Michael Trominisky, an INS deputy district director temporarily in Miami, says, "An alien is entitled to a prompt hearing. Meanwhile, he says, "we are attempting to house them in the best conditions we can."
Concerning the Coast Guard interception plan, David Miller, special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith, points out that "it's not a blockade." Only one Coast Guard ship, backed up by use of aircraft, will be used in the $3 million, 90-day experiment, he said. The main target will be large ships smuggling Haitians, but smaller, overloaded boats will be stopped as well, he said. In some cases, this may save lives because the trip by small boat is perilous, he said.
But some members of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation say the Coast Guard is already underequipped, more so because of recent budget cuts. And they question whether the US has the legal right to stop Haitian boats that may be headed to the Bahamas or Cuba (frequent stopovers en route to the US).
Also, says a subcommittee staff member, the plan for "halting blacks" (Haitians are black) while not halting white or Hispanic illegal immigrants by boat interception raises the question of racial discrimination.