Asylum seekers deserve justice

Edwidge Danticat, October 31, 2005

A year ago, my family lost its patriarch, a church in a very impoverished Haitian neighborhood lost its shepherd and America lost an opportunity to live up to its ideals.
A year ago, my 81-year-old uncle, the Rev. Joseph Nozius Dantica, died while in the custody of Miami's Krome Detention Center, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.

After fleeing a violent gang in Haiti, which had ransacked his home and church and threatened his life, my uncle ended up at Miami International Airport last Oct. 29 with everything he owned packed in a briefcase. Among his few remaining possessions were medications he was taking for hypertension and an inflamed prostate. He was also carrying a passport with a valid visa.

He asked for asylum.

My uncle, who as a result of previous larynx cancer surgery used a voice box to speak, was immediately taken into custody. The medications he had brought with him from Haiti were confiscated. Three days later at Krome, he had a hearing to determine whether he had a “credible fear” of persecution if he returned to Haiti. When he began vomiting at the hearing, he was accused of faking his illness. He was then transported, in shackles, to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ward D, where prisoners are held. In spite of many calls to the ward, I was not allowed to speak to him, nor would anyone -- either from the hospital or from Krome -- give me, or his lawyer, any update on his condition. We were told we could not visit him for “security reasons.” Twenty-four hours later, he was dead.

On the anniversary of my uncle's death, I tell and retell his story, as I have been this entire year, not only to honor him -- as is the duty of the living to the dead -- but to demand justice. There must be disciplinary action against those who contributed to his death, as well as specific policy changes that would prevent other asylum seekers, particularly those who are elderly or infirm, from suffering the same fate.

With help from the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, my family filed a federal lawsuit to obtain copies of my uncle's medical records from the Public Health Service at Krome. It took public requests from several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, as well as support from New York Rep. Charles Rangel and Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek to have his death investigated by the Office of the Inspector General of the United States. All in the hope that some lessons could be learned and some improvements made in the treatment -- at best neglectful and at worst cruel -- that many asylum seekers, particularly Haitians, receive upon their arrival in the United States.

A year later, we finally have the results of the investigation. It absolves all Department of Homeland Security personnel of any responsibility in my uncle's unnecessary death. It makes no recommendations, as far as I can tell, on how a situation like this could be avoided in the future.

Tragically, this apparent unwillingness to re-examine and amend policies and procedures that have such disastrous consequences can only lead to the loss of many more lives.

Edwidge Danticat, a native of Haiti, is a writer living in Miami. She is the author of several novels, including, most recently, “Anacaona, Golden Flower” (Scholastic, April 2005), a young adult novel. She was a 2005 National Books Critics Circle finalist for her novel, “The Dew Breaker.”