Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


A Maverick Priest Fights for the Caribbean's Forgotten Refugees: Haitian Blacks

Posted on

By the time the Panamanian freighter Albenny spotted their 40-foot sailboat, they had been at sea for 10 days, out of food for two and taking on water for several harrowing hours. Packed so tightly they had to stand, the 223 ill-clothed refugees were cold, frightened and lost. When the freighter docked in Miami to put them ashore, one dazed man timidly asked a reporter: “Is this the United States?”

By now it has become a familiar story: refugees fleeing a Caribbean dictatorship for the haven of South Florida. But the parallels between those 223 men and women and the Cubans of the Freedom Flotilla ended abruptly when they stepped off the boat. These are Haitian blacks, the forgotten people of the Caribbean exodus, and neither “open arms” nor “open hearts” await them on U.S. soil. While the Cubans are given identity papers, food, clothing and asylum, the Haitians face imprisonment and the indefinite threat of deportation. Some 75,000 Cubans could become permanent American residents within the next few months, but of the estimated 40,000 Haitians who have arrived in this country since 1972, only 60 so far have been told they can stay. The rest live a cramped, menial half-life in a Miami ghetto known as “Little Haiti.” “They want us to be quiet,” says the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, 34, a Haitian-born Roman Catholic priest who heads the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami. “But without legal status the refugees are condemned to malnutrition, unemployment, exploitation and living in the streets. The Haitians are here, wanted or not, and we have to do something about them.”

Jean-Juste is the Haitians’ chief advocate in Miami and Washington, and his job is a thankless one. According to the Justice Department, the Haitians are fleeing not political repression but poverty, and thus are ineligible for asylum. “That’s just not true,” Jean-Juste insists. “In the years before Baby Doc [President-for-life Jean-Claude Duvalier] we didn’t come, even with the same poverty, because people knew that Papa Doc [his father] would die soon, and they hoped things would change. It was only when it became apparent that there would be no change that people started coming here.” Stories abound in Little Haiti of brutality endured at the hands of Duvalier’s secret police, the Ton-Ton Macoutes, and the Leopards, his elite palace guard. “The United States thinks it’s best to keep a good relationship with Duvalier,” says Jean-Juste, who claims he has been the target of threats by phone and mail from allies of Duvalier. “But how long can you support one family against the whole nation?”

The Haitians’ treatment in this country is certainly better than at home, but still not good. During a class action suit recently filed on their behalf, Richard Gullage, deputy director of immigration in Miami, admitted that he was ordered in 1978 to detain all Haitians and drastically speed up deportations. “At one point we were incarcerating all Haitian males,” he testified. “To my knowledge that had never been done before with Haitians or any other group.” (At one West Palm Beach jail, Jean-Juste discovered an 8-year-old girl who had been imprisoned for two weeks. He managed to get her and her father released.)

Haitians were being denied asylum en masse by form letter over Gullage’s signature—a practice he admitted was also restricted to the Haitians—and up to 50 of them were being deported every day under the accelerated hearing process.

A federal judge enjoined such practices two months ago, but the refugees must still face a new life in Little Haiti without government help. The majority speak no English, and as illegal aliens they are easy prey for black marketeers selling phony identity papers for as much as $300. Most move in with other Haitians, as many as 15 to one dilapidated, rat-infested shack. Some sleep in city parks. Jean-Juste makes frequent trips to Washington to buttonhole legislators and White House aides, but to little purpose, he says: “I have met Mrs. Carter, the Attorney General, and I give them all packages about the Haitian issue, but they refuse to help. I don’t know what else I can do.”

Jean-Juste was born in the Haitian village of Cavaillon, one of five illegitimate children (their father was married to another woman). His childhood was as poverty-stricken as most Haitian villagers’, but when he was 14 friends paid his way to Canada, where he entered a seminary. In 1971 he became the first Haitian priest ordained in the U.S. That same year Papa Doc died, and the young priest returned home full of hope—”but it was the same,” he recalls. “The same gang in power, the same Macoutes killing people.” He was arrested for taking part in a bus strike, and when he was released from prison he fled to the U.S. He taught in Boston for a while, and in 1978 went to help out his countrymen in Miami.

Since then the archdiocese has consistently refused to give him a parish. He says it is because of racism; his superiors say he refuses to go back to his assigned parish in Haiti. As a result Jean-Juste subsists on his $16,000 salary as director of the refugee center (though friends say he gives most of that away) and lives with his two brothers in a small apartment on the edge of Little Haiti. His mother and two sisters still live in Cavaillon.

Last week President Duvalier asked the U.S. government to accept 50,000 Haitians he believes are planning to leave the country despite his ban on such emigration. The State Department did not hasten to reply. Jean-Juste fears the move by Duvalier is a cynical attempt to whip up animosity against the Haitians already in the U.S. Still, the priest is willing to face the multiplied woes that such a new wave of Haitians would bring if only to assure that no more refugees are lost at sea, as hundreds, perhaps thousands, already have been. “What devastates me is the drowning of little children,” he said at the end of a long day spent beseeching local officials for help—and local blacks for an end to violence in the riottorn ghetto. “I had to bury a 5-week-old baby last week.” Is he discouraged by the struggle? “I wanted to resign after two months of this,” he admits, “but the situation has become so bad I’m stuck. I can’t walk out now.”