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Posted February 25, 2003
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Visit shows depth of detainees' pain
By Jim DeFede, Miami Herald Writer

Eleven-year-old Gaspar Silien couldn't stop crying. Inside the Krome detention center, the Haitian boy clung to his father and didn't want to let go. He had only seen his father a couple of times in court since his family and more than 200 other Haitians landed on Key Biscayne Oct. 29.

Soon after the family arrived in South Florida, they were separated. Gaspar, his mother and his four underage brothers and sisters were eventually sent to a motel, where they have remained under house arrest, watched 24 hours a day by armed guards. Meanwhile, Gaspar's father and older brother were sent to Krome in West Miami-Dade County.

On Monday, the family was briefly reunited during a visit to Krome by filmmaker Jonathan Demme, Haitian radio journalist Michele Montas-Dominique and a contingent of community activists and politicians, including U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.

The mother and her children had been taken to Krome in preparation for an asylum hearing scheduled for this morning, but were still kept separate from Gaspar's father, Charles.

When Demme and Montas-Dominique realized the entire Silien family was inside Krome -- albeit in different parts of the facility -- they pressured INS officials to bring them together. When Gaspar's father, Charles, joined them a short time later, the children let out a scream and raced to hug him.

''He hadn't been able to hold or hug his children in months,'' Montas-Dominique said. ``It was very, very emotional.''

At one point Montas-Dominique looked over and saw the father, Charles Silien, holding his 8-year-old daughter. He was crying and the girl reached up and gently brushed a teardrop running down his face.

Montas-Dominique recognized the girl. During the television coverage of the Haitians landing on Key Biscayne, there was the unforgettable image of a small child in a yellow dress, hanging by one arm over the side of the boat, waiting to be handed to someone in the water who would carry her to shore. This was the same girl.

For Montas-Dominique and Demme, the Silien family offered all the proof they would need that the U.S. policy of indefinitely detaining Haitian migrants applying for asylum is both immoral and inhumane.

Since Dec. 3, the mother, Guerline, and her five children -- who range in age from 5-year-old Charlot to 16-year-old Sabine -- have been cramped into a single motel room in West Miami-Dade.

''They cannot go out in the hallways because there are guards in the hallways,'' Montas-Dominique said. ``They are not allowed to go and play anywhere. I don't know if you have ever tried to lock a 5-year-old boy inside a room, it is a sheer impossibility.''

Demme said the Silien children were ''gorgeous, fabulous, full-of-life little kids'' and seeing them with their father was both gratifying and distressing. After about 20 minutes, the guards came and took Charles Silien away.

''For a second while the family was united, you forgot that they were going to be separated again,'' he said.

Noting the Silien asylum hearing will be held this morning, Demme added: ``It is incomprehensible that this family would be denied the opportunity to get back together, and yet you witness what we saw today and you realize that all things are possible under this policy.''

In addition to the Siliens, Demme and Montas-Dominique, as well as the other dignitaries, met with more than 100 other detainees inside Krome and then drove over to the motel where another two dozen women and small children are being warehoused.

The visitors were struck by the level of despair among the detainees, many of whom complained they were routinely insulted and abused by the guards inside Krome.

''Haitians are extremely proud people and the insults they get from the guards, telling them, for instance, that they smell and that they stink -- that is something very difficult for Haitians to take,'' Montas-Dominique said.


''They are subjected to a lot of scorn and ridicule,'' Demme added. ``There are incidents of them being spat upon by personnel at the facility. It is just heartbreaking. Anything that can possibly be done to break a person's spirit is being done to these people -- their families are being separated, they are being confined under terrible circumstances.

''As an American I am just so terribly ashamed to have seen these good people treated thusly,'' Demme said.

''I knew of Krome before,'' Montas-Dominique said. ``I heard about the conditions. But seeing it and more than that, witnessing the sense of despair among these young guys -- most of them are only 30 years old -- that was really what was most disturbing. For a Haitian to stop hoping, you really have to go through a lot.''

Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman Ana Santiago said the agency was not aware of any complaints about the guards mistreating the detainees.

She said if a detainee came forward with specific allegations, the claim would be investigated.

Santiago declined to comment on the suggestion by Demme and Montas-Dominique that the Haitian children are being mistreated because the kids are held in their rooms all day long.

Montas-Dominique said she was angered by the way all the Haitians are being treated.

''These people are not criminals,'' she said. ``They are just regular people.''


I told Montas-Dominique some people in Miami will read her comments and argue the Haitians are criminals because they violated U.S. immigration law by coming into this country illegally.

'They came to a country that used to say, `Give me your poor, your wretched,' '' she countered. ``

And that is the image of America that they have. They don't know about American law. They know about American hope.

This report was reproduced from The Miami Herald of February 25, 2003.

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