Asylum Seeker's Death Sparks Outrage

Haitian community says the case of a pastor who died in immigration officials' custody, his medicines confiscated, is emblematic.

By John-Thor Dahlburg

Los Angeles Times

January 2, 2005

MIAMI — When the Rev. Joseph Dantica flew here from Haiti, his family said, he was seeking a momentary respite from the strife and violence convulsing his native land. Instead, the 81-year-old Baptist clergyman died in federal custody, separated from his family and medicine that he was carrying to treat his ailments.

The death of the pastor, who was detained at Miami International Airport after requesting temporary asylum, has provoked lasting anger and outrage that have rippled far beyond the Haitian American community. Dantica was a longtime spiritual leader and frequent visitor to the United States who had a valid entry visa and family members in this country.

"To let this man who came with such hopes die is really, really, really aggravating to the community. It has been the subject of questions, expressions of anger, disappointment and helplessness," said Marleine Bastien, founder and executive director of Haitian Women of Miami Inc., an advocacy group.

Dantica died in a Miami hospital Nov. 3 while in Department of Homeland Security custody. The pathos of a frail and aged man dying apart from his family, plus the fact that his niece, Edwidge Danticat, is a prominent Haitian American author, have kept this case in the spotlight.

"The way my uncle was treated was so emblematic of the way Haitian asylum seekers are treated here. Their stories are not believed, they are immediately detained, sometimes for years, and the majority are deported," Danticat said. (Her family name is spelled differently, she explained, because of an error made on her father's birth certificate.)

Danticat, 35, is the author of the novel "Breath, Eyes, Memory" that was a selection in Oprah Winfrey's book club. She is calling for an investigation by U.S. authorities into the death of the man who reared her in Haiti for eight years until she could join her parents in Brooklyn, where her immigrant father worked as a taxi driver. The writer has the support of Walter Mosley, author of the "Easy Rawlins" novels based in postwar Los Angeles, and film producer and director Jonathan Demme.

Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, a Miami Democrat, has also asked the Bush administration to look into the circumstances surrounding the pastor's death and bring criminal charges if warranted. If Dantica had kept quiet and not told immigration officials that he might overstay his visa, Meek noted, he could have entered this country freely, then registered an asylum claim by telephone at his leisure.

Instead, "he wanted to be truthful with us, and his truthfulness became his demise," the congressman said. In general, Meek said, "Haitians are treated unlike any other nationality that comes through Miami International Airport, in my opinion. They are at the bottom of the pole."

To date, the response from the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division has been a four-paragraph statement reporting that an autopsy showed Dantica's death was caused by pancreatitis, a "preexisting and fatal condition."

There is "no connection" between the rapid deterioration in Dantica's health and his detention after he arrived Oct. 29 in Miami, the statement said. Spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez in Customs Enforcement's Miami office declined to elaborate on Dantica's case, but said it was wrong to maintain that Haitians seeking to enter the United States were treated more harshly than people from other countries.

"Our enforcement operations do not target one particular race, nationality or ethnicity over any other," Gonzalez said. "The laws are applied evenly across the board."

Dantica was pastor of the Church of the Redeemer in the lawless Bel-Air district of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. Dantica fled to the United States with his 55-year-old son, Maxo, after the church was pillaged and their lives threatened by an armed gang.

On Oct. 24, the church had been used by U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police who engaged in a running gun battle with gang members in the streets outside. Survivors reportedly told Dantica that 15 gang members had been killed, and threatened to behead him if he didn't hand over money to bury them. The minister and his son went into hiding, then departed for Miami.

Dantica, who spoke through a voice box after surgical removal of his larynx, suffered from high blood pressure and an inflamed prostate. When detained along with his son by U.S. officials, the minister was carrying prescription and herbal remedies. The drugs were confiscated, said Danticat, who spoke by phone with her uncle after he was taken to the Krome Detention Center west of Miami.

While awaiting an immigration hearing there, her uncle began vomiting and passed out, she said. He was taken to a hospital where family members were not permitted to see him and died the next day.

"I think there is a strong connection with the way he was treated and the fact he died," his niece said. "They took his medicine and when he was in crisis, they didn't attend to him."

Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, said that because of Dantica's age and valid visa, U.S. officials had the option of quickly releasing him into the custody of family members. Instead, she said in an op ed piece published last month by the Miami Herald, they accused the minister of faking his illness, and he died alone, chained to a hospital bed.

"At every turn, Haitians are discriminated against," Little said in an interview. In a report soon to be made public, her Miami-based group will allege that in some parts of South Florida, Haitians seem to have been "disproportionately targeted" in sweeps for illegal immigrants conducted as part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's "Operation End Game."

Haitians illegally in the country, who may number 100,000, also have not been granted "temporary protected status," despite the widespread disorder in their homeland after the February departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and despite the destruction caused in the autumn by Hurricane Jeanne, which killed 3,000 people.

In April 2003, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said U.S. diplomats had noticed an increase in Pakistanis, Palestinians and other third-country nationals using Haiti as a staging area to enter this country. Little said that claim was groundless and had been used to justify a crackdown on Haitians who want to immigrate.

Danticat, a naturalized citizen who lives in Miami, said her uncle had been bewildered and ashamed to find himself behind bars. She said she hoped that an investigation into his death would lead to more humane treatment for asylum applicants.

"They could have let us see him; they could have let Maxo see him," she said. "But they let him die alone. It's shameful."

The day after his father's death, Maxo Dantica was released by U.S. officials and told that he could remain in this country for at least a year.