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Posted Monday, April 10, 2006
                     
Authorities detain 46 Haitians in Hillsboro,
seek boat owner in smuggling operation
                
By Brian Haas, Macollvie Jean Francois and Tal Abbady,
South Florida Sun-Sentinel Writers

HILLSBORO BEACH As politicians in the United States fought over illegal immigration, another boat left northern Haiti crammed with people seeking a better life.

45 migrants.jpg (35087 bytes)
This 45-foot-long boat, which grounded in Hillsboro Beach on Friday morning, brought at least 45 migrants to shore. Police picked up 45 in a several hours search and were looking for more. Most of the migrants were Haitians, but one each was reported from Cuba and Jamaica. It was not immediately known who owned the boat. (Sun-Sentinel/Joe Amon)

On Friday morning, the 45-foot cabin cruiser landed on this upscale community's coast, giving its passengers a brief taste of South Florida before U.S. immigration officials rounded them up. Undaunted, many vowed to return.

"I'd rather spend 50 years in prison than be sent back to Haiti," said Donald Joseph, 32. "Haiti has nothing."

The group of 46 people, mostly Haitian nationals, streamed from the beached boat about 6:30 a.m. hiding among vacation rentals, luxury condominiums and mansions before being detained.

Three hours later, Hillsboro Beach police, Broward County sheriff's deputies and U.S. immigration officials had found all of the 44 Haitians, one Cuban and one Jamaican national who arrived in a suspected smuggling operation, said Steve McDonald, spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol. They were all in good health.

Most of the illegal immigrants are being processed for return to their countries, but the Cuban likely will stay in the United States, McDonald said.

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Migrants in custody. (Sun-Sentinel/Lou Toman)

Meanwhile, investigators are trying to find the operator of the beached 45-foot Swordfish cabin cruiser, which lacked any identifying information.

A Hillsboro police officer first spotted two Haitians walking along State Road A1A shortly after 6:30 a.m., Police Chief John Ballard said. After they told the officer how they arrived, authorities began searching for the others.

Residents in the Virginia Kaye condominium awoke about 6:50 a.m. as helicopters buzzed overhead. Carole O'Neill walked outside her home and saw four women crouched near some bushes.

"I felt so sorry for them," O'Neill said. "They were huddled together; they were so scared."

O'Neill said the women immigrants fled when a maintenance man walked by.

After a few hours, authorities said they had captured all the immigrants, accounting for most or all of the boat's passengers, McDonald said. Because the Hillsboro Police Department did not have a large enough cell to hold all 46 people, they made a makeshift detention area out of the site used to load and unload prisoners.

The arrivals brought to 80 the number of Haitians the Border Patrol has detained in South Florida for the fiscal year that that started Oct. 1 and runs through the end of September. With six months to go, that's well above the pace set in the previous period, when authorities detailed 119 Haitians.

McDonald said packing so many people on a 45-foot boat is a dangerous venture. But with smuggling fees of $1,500 to $3,000 per person, the business is lucrative.

"They'll risk life and limb of their human cargo," McDonald said. "Each person represents a dollar sign."

Some of the boat's passengers said they had not paid a smuggler and that the people on board took turns steering the boat. Several cited political turmoil for leaving Haiti and others the lack of jobs and other economic problems.

Immigration agents sent the detainees to a Pembroke Pines detention facility about 11:20 a.m. There, authorities will begin the process of repatriating the immigrants to their native countries.

Several of the Haitians, who have families in South Florida, asked journalists to contact their relatives.

Elcia Philemar, of Fort Lauderdale, said she was shocked to hear that her 15-year-old son, Henri-Claude "Keke" Louis-Jean, was on the boat. Philemar said that when she last spoke with relatives in Cap Haitien, the city where Louis-Jean lived with his grandmother, they told her he had disappeared.

Philemar said her son might have felt threatened because his father, a former Haitian military officer, was beaten and shot recently.

Violence and unrest is common in Haiti, making a risky voyage to South Florida attractive. Haitian-American immigration attorney Marie Estime-Thompson, of Miami, saw this firsthand in April 2005 when she and other members of The Lambi Fund of Haiti, a group that raises funds for Haitian development projects, were kidnapped at gunpoint near the airport in Port-au-Prince. They were released unharmed.

"There's extreme chaos in Haiti right now that the government cannot control," Estime-Thompson said. "I saw how desperate people are there when my own group was hijacked for money."

The Haitians likely will be repatriated under U.S. law.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who make it to U.S. soil typically qualify for permanent residency a year later.

Haitians with a credible fear of persecution if repatriated are sometimes allowed to request asylum but attorneys say Haitians are rarely granted it.

this sport.jpg (27363 bytes)
This sport, fisherman boat reportedly was used to land more than two dozen Haitian migrants in Hillsboro Beach. (Photo/News Partner NBC)

"The perception is that the law is not being followed and that the Haitians are not given asylum even when a case is made," said Jessica Lavariega Monforti, a post-doctoral fellow in politics at Florida International University.

That troubles Haitians who arrived in South Florida years ago. Maintenance worker Abner Desinor, 60, who came to the scene Friday, said he arrived on a beach in 1978. Desinor said authorities held him for three days before letting him go. He found a job and became a U.S. citizen in 1996.

"I am a little sad about it; it could have been me," Desinor said, nearly breaking down at the sight of the young Haitian men and women being arrested. "That's how I came here."

Brian Haas can be reached at bhaas@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4597.

Copyright 2006, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive Inc. Reprinted from Sun-Sentinel of Saturday, April 8, 2006.

 

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