by Monique O. Madan & Jacqueline Charles
A detainee who has twice tested positive for COVID-19 and is still experiencing symptoms is among 100 individuals expected to be deported to Haiti on Monday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Stephane Etienne, 26, said he knows of at least four other detainees inside the Pine Prairie Detention Center in Louisiana, where he’s been since April 7, who are slated to be on Monday’s ICE deportation flight. Like him, they too have been infected with the novel coronavirus, which causes the deadly respiratory disease.
“It just shows how irresponsible ICE is to send someone who is sick on a flight,” Etienne, who says he’s still coughing, told the Miami Herald in a telephone interview from the detention center. “It clearly doesn’t make any sense [to deport us] to Haiti, especially for a country that’s so poor and unable to have resources.”
On Friday, the Associated Press reported that Guatemala’s government said a Guatemalan deported from the U.S. had tested positive for the coronavirus despite having paperwork from U.S. immigration authorities stating that he had been tested and was negative. The Guatemalan was among 74 people who were flown on Monday to Guatemala, which had twice suspended deportation flights from the U.S. until assurances could be given that detainees would be tested before being flown back.
Guatemala’s government has said more than 70 deportees from the U.S. tested positive for the virus after arriving in the Central American country in recent weeks. Haiti has reported three positive infections so far among deportees, one of whom escaped quarantine after he was told of his status.
Haiti’s health ministry announced Friday that all 123 detainees who arrived in the country on April 23 aboard a U.S. deportation flight have tested negative for COVID-19 and have been released from quarantine to join their families.
Etienne said he first tested positive for COVID-19 on April 17 after running a 103-degree fever and insisting on a test, which the detention facility did not want to administer. Then on April 28, while still running a fever, he tested again and was still positive. He has not been tested again since, Etienne said, even though he learned through his wife, Melissa Furtado, that he’s scheduled to be deported to Haiti on Monday.
“ICE has never contacted me,” he said.
When he did reach out to ICE on a tablet to ask about the prospect of being deported after testing positive for the coronavirus, “their response to me was that your flight will be scheduled in the beginning of May. And that was the only contact. No one has ever come to me directly and said, you will be on a flight,” Etienne said.
The Herald, which obtained a copy of the flight manifest, has confirmed that Etienne’s name is on the list as well as four other detainees’ whom immigration lawyers and Etienne said have also tested positive. Also on the list was Haiti death squad leader Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, whose Monday deportation has since been canceled after controversy erupted over his removal by the Department of Homeland Security.
Convicted by a Haitian court in absentia for the 1994 massacre in the Haitian town of Raboteau, Constant was recently released from a New York State prison, where he served 12 years for mortgage fraud and grand larceny.
The Trump administration has been accused of exporting COVID-19 to vulnerable countries like Haiti, where a weak health system can barely handle regular illnesses, much less a global pandemic. In several instances, arriving deportees have tested positive for the virus, adding to the challenge of trying to control the spread.
The Monday deportation flight to Haiti is the third in recent weeks. Unlike the previous two flights, which consisted of non-criminals who were placed in quarantine at a hotel by the government, the upcoming flight includes about 50 detainees with criminal backgrounds ranging from cocaine trafficking and sexual assault to robbery.
Until now, the focus has been on the deportation of foreign nationals from federal detention centers where testing has been scant, despite a growing number of detainees and employees showing up positive. But Etienne’s case adds a new layer to the debate, given his positive status and that of the other detainees who can expose non-infected detainees on the flight down to Haiti or upon their arrival in the country.
ICE officials told the Herald last month that the agency would acquire approximately 2,000 tests a month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to screen detainees with final orders of removal who are in its custody.
But given the nationwide shortages of testing kits, “the agency likely won’t have enough to test all aliens scheduled for future removals and will prioritize testing based on evolving operational considerations,” ICE said.
Etienne said he’s been told that he will not be tested for a third time.
DHS, which oversees the agency, did not respond to inquiries from the Herald about what testing procedure it plans to use for the detainees before sending them to Haiti, where cases are quickly growing.
Haiti, to date, has 146 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but its 12 deaths so far gives it one of the highest mortality rates in the Caribbean. Global Health experts have been sounding the alarm that a surge in cases could deepen the country’s multiple crises and unleash social arrest and famine.
“This is a clear disregard for human lives,” said immigration activist Guerline Jozef of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, who is familiar with Etienne’s case and that of other detainees aboard the Monday flight, which is scheduled to leave from Louisiana. “The number of COVID-19 cases have jumped from 50 to 129 in two weeks in Haiti with only a little over 1,000 suspected cases. My fear is that Haiti might become the next hot spot.”
Etienne said that in the dorm where he’s being held at the Louisiana detention center, there are 11 detainees who have COVID-19. At least five are Haitian and scheduled to fly out on Monday. There is also one other section inside the detention center where people with COVID-19 are held, he said. ICE records show there are currently 26 detainees with COVID-19 at the detention center.
“Under these conditions, of course, it’s stressful, knowing a flight is coming up soon,” Etienne said.
Etienne, who lived in Everett, Mass., said he was taken into custody by ICE two years after serving a five-year sentence for a robbery that he committed when he was 18. They showed up at his dispatching job early in the morning of Nov. 4, 2019, and “didn’t say anything. They just grabbed me.” Two months later on Jan. 8, he was ordered deported to Haiti.
Since, he and Furtado, along with his lawyer, have been fighting his deportation without much success. The couple said Etienne was born at home in Florida with his mother and grandmother as witnesses. His mother was undocumented at the time and in hiding. She never registered his birth, which is why he doesn’t have a birth certificate, and when Etienne was a child, his mother acquired a fake green card for him, Furtado said.
However, ICE, which once flew Etienne to its Burlington, Mass., office and had him swear he was not a Haitian national, continues to insist that he’s Haitian. They even rejected an affidavit from his grandmother, his wife said.
He and his lawyers have been waiting three months, they both said, for the Haiti Embassy in Washington to validate a notarized letter from National Archives in Haiti, which holds the country’s birth registry, saying he’s not a Haitian citizen and therefore has no place in the country.
“It would be helpful to show that Haiti doesn’t recognize me as a citizen; it looks better for my case, “ Etienne said. “The Haitian Embassy’s not doing anything.”
An embassy employee contacted by Etienne did not respond to the Herald for an update on the request.
Furtado said her husband has never stepped foot in Haiti, not even as a visitor.
“My home is empty. My heart is empty,” she said. “The worst part is that the government is deporting him from his home to a place he’s never even been to.”
She said ICE tried to deport her husband in April but “lawmakers stopped the plane, supposedly because the prime minister of Haiti stated they would not take back those with a criminal record.”
Etienne, who was at the Alexandria jail, was then transferred to Pine Prairie because they were told the Alexandria facility was being closed due to COVID-19.
Four months ago, Furtado gave birth to the couple’s daughter. Etienne was in immigration lockup, she said.
“Her name is Lila, and she’s never met her father.”
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