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More Special Reports
|Posted November 20, 2006|
|American Dream Now Immigration Nightmare|
|By ALFONSO CHARDY, THE MIAMI HERALD|
A Haitian-born man, once a success, faces being expelled after his citizenship is revoked.
MIAMI -- Every night Lionel Jean-Baptiste goes to sleep, he hopes to wake up to a normal life again and that everything that has happened was just a bad dream.
But then reality sets in. Jean-Baptiste's continued stay at the Krome Avenue Detention Center in west Miami-Dade is a metaphor for his life of hope and despair.
A refugee from one of the world's poorest countries, Jean-Baptiste survived a tragic sea voyage from Haiti, became a successful Miami restaurant owner, a U.S. citizen -- and then a man without a country when he was convicted of selling crack cocaine and lost his citizenship.
His dream has turned into an immigration nightmare.
"Every day, when I wake up, I see myself here and I feel like I'm in hell," Jean-Baptiste told The Miami Herald on Friday in his first interview since federal immigration officers detained him June 14.
Haiti-born Jean-Baptiste, 58, is the first naturalized American in more than 40 years to have his citizenship revoked after a drug-trafficking conviction. On Oct. 31, Haiti refused to take him back because he had renounced his Haitian citizenship when he swore allegiance to the United States.
Now, the United States is attempting to expel Jean-Baptiste to France -- but an official at the French consulate in Miami said Friday that the French consul turned down the request from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Jean-Baptiste said immigration officials told him that if Paris rejected the request, the United States would turn next to the Dominican Republic.
Barbara Gonzalez, a Miami spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said: "Our obligation as a law-enforcement agency is to carry out orders of removal as issued by immigration judges."
Jean-Baptiste said his hopes soared when he heard Haiti would not take him back. He thought release was imminent since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that foreign nationals who cannot be deported must not be held indefinitely.
Jean-Baptiste told his story during the hourlong interview in Krome, ironically the same detention facility where he was first held for about five weeks in 1980 after he and dozens of other refugees were rescued when their overloaded boat capsized en route to South Florida.
There were 155 people on the boat when it left Haiti but only about 95 survived, he said. Upon release, Jean-Baptiste worked in a series of odd jobs until he landed a job as cashier in a Little Haiti restaurant he eventually came to own.
Jean-Baptiste's biggest success -- the restaurant -- was also the scene of his downfall.
It was there that in March 1995, about five months after applying for citizenship, Jean-Baptiste was approached by a woman -- an undercover Miami police detective.
Jean-Baptiste said the woman asked to buy two ounces of cocaine. When he replied that he did not sell drugs, the woman left the restaurant.
"Then she came back and asked 'Where can I find or buy drugs?' " he said. "I went outside and pointed somewhere where she can actually purchase the drugs."
Jean-Baptiste, who maintained he was innocent throughout the trial, said he was just trying to be helpful, not an accomplice of the drug peddlers.
A year later, Jean-Baptiste became a U.S. citizen. Six months later, he was indicted and arrested. He pleaded not guilty but was convicted at trial. He served seven years in prison.
While in prison, he received an immigration-service letter advising him that his citizenship would be revoked.
"All I want to know is why?" Jean-Baptiste asked. "I don't understand why this is happening."
© 2006 Orlando Sentinel Communications. Reprinted from The Sun-Sentinel of Monday, November 20, 2006
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