FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Haitian community leaders in Palm Beach County say that U.S. immigration officials have been sweeping through neighborhoods in Lake Worth, Delray, Rivera and West Palm in recent weeks searching for undocumented immigrants.
While the deportations are within the law, civic leaders say enforcement is more aggressive than in the past and fails to distinguish between criminals and those who lack papers but pose no threat to society.
Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda said the department was not conducting any "enforcement actions" targeting a particular group in Palm Beach County. She said the department "continues to remove individuals based on being in violation of federal law, irrespective of their nationality."
The department said it had deported 52 Haitians on Nov. 15; more recent statistics were not immediately available.
But Daniella Henry, executive director of the Haitian-American Community Council in Delray, said families had been calling her organization with increased frequency over the past three weeks to report deportations of their loved ones.
She characterized those arrests as a break from the past, when Haitians were generally picked up for unrelated offenses, such as driving with a broken taillight or domestic violence, and then channeled into a removal process once their immigration status was questioned.
"Recently it has not been the case that they are picked up for criminal activity. Now [immigration authorities] come to the house. Before, that was very seldom," she said.
Bob Louis Jeune, president of the Haitian Citizens United Taskforce of West Palm Beach, also said dozens have been deported over the past month. Many, like Pierre Robert Geffrard, had lived in the United States for years, he said, and were well established in the community.
Geffrard was brushing his teeth last month when immigration officials came to the house. He had planned to teach Sunday school that morning.
"It was 5 a.m. and they were knocking on the door," said his 17-year-old niece, Tamara, who witnessed the incident. "I let them in and they asked for the owner of the green truck."
Geffrard was arrested and detained for several days before he was sent back to Haiti with only the clothes on his back.
"I lost my Sunday school director," said Jean Sylvain, pastor of Maranatha Church of God in Rivera Beach, where Geffrard worshiped. "He didn't want to go the way they sent him."
Sylvain said Geffrard was one of about six undocumented parishioners targeted at his church. The others are now in hiding. With immigration agents visiting homes, Sylvain said, parishioners worried that the churches would be next.
"When you go to church now, it's very empty," Sylvain said. "People are scared."
He added that Haitian community leaders in Palm Beach County planned to meet to discuss the issue. Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, said Haitian activists are investigating reports of increased deportations in Miami as well.
"We're very concerned about this," she said. "It seems [the deportations] have intensified." This is despite immigrant advocates' calls for the Bush administration to curtail deportation proceedings against Haitians because of the recent violence and flooding in the country.
The U.S. government announced in October that it would grant stays of deportation to noncriminal Haitians on a case-by-case basis if they came from parts of the country ravaged by Tropical Storm Jeanne in September. The storm killed nearly 2,000, and left about 200,000 homeless.
In its aftermath, Haiti has been buffeted by a new wave of political violence and street clashes, including shootings and beheadings.
"Sending them to a country that is torn apart by war, hungry ... is not humane," Henry said.
Sylvain, the pastor, said Geffrard came to the United States about 10 years ago on a visa with the hope of living permanently in the United States and sending for his wife and children, who live in Port-au-Prince.
Geffrard's visa had expired, Sylvain said, but he had been pursuing permanent residency for about six years through the church. He had also tried to renew an expired work permit.
Two months ago, DHS requested that the church provide more paperwork pertaining to Geffrard's case, including proof of Sunday school training and the church's tax identification number, Sylvain said. He said the church complied and prayed for the best.
Their hopes were dashed Oct. 24, when immigration officials came looking for Geffrard at his brother's house. Sylvain said Geffrard had no criminal record, and a review of state records by the Sun-Sentinel showed no criminal activity in his past. His niece said he worked for Serta in West Palm Beach during the day and Embassy Suites in Palm Beach Gardens at night.
"I was upset at first because my uncle and I were very close," Tamara Geffrard said. "But I guess it's the law, so we can't do anything about."
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.