In the late winter darkness, U.S. Border Patrol agents tracked footprints through the snow to a thicket of woods where Imante Bellevue and three companions slipped across the Canadian border into Vermont.
It was 10:30 p.m. on March 1, when a motion sensor was tripped near the Highgate Springs port of entry — a sign that someone had crossed into the U.S. illegally.
Border agents canvassed the area and found Bellevue and the others walking down Welcome Center Road. Detained and questioned about their nationality, all four said they were from Haiti — a story border agents are hearing with striking frequency these days.
Since January, Haitian immigrants have been pouring over the international border into Vermont in numbers the U.S. Border Patrol says it hasn’t seen in years. Mark Henry, operations officer for the Border Patrol’s Swanton sector, says that since January 21, at least 115 Haitians have been apprehended at the border.
Though no one can say for sure, lawyers, immigration advocates and even Vermont’s top federal prosecutor all point to one reason for the trend: Haitians are coming here seeking special protections to avoid being deported back to their earthquake-ravaged homeland.
Following the devastating quake, the Obama administration added Haiti to the list of countries with temporary protected status (TPS), which allows illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S. for 18 months. TPS nations are those the U.S. deems so dangerous that it won’t deport illegal immigrants back to them. The list of hostile nations includes Somalia, Sudan and El Salvador.
Haitians who years ago fled from the U.S. to Canada to avoid deportation appear to be returning here in hopes of gaining protected status.
Instead, dozens find themselves behind bars and temporarily without a country, unsure whether they’ll be sent back to Canada, be allowed to remain in the U.S., or someday even be returned to Haiti. To date, more than two dozen have been arraigned in U.S. District Court in Burlington, with more arriving every day.
At one such recent arraignment, four Haitian men in black-and-white-striped prison jumpsuits sat stone-faced around the defendant’s table while a Creole interpreter translated the charges and questions read aloud by U.S. Magistrate Judge John Conroy.
One by one, the men, ages 21 to 46, pleaded not guilty in English or Creole to the charges. Three weeks prior, they’d been picked up near North Troy at 4:30 a.m. when a border agent doing “line watch duties” spotted the men on Pine Street.
When the judge asked him a boilerplate question about whether he was presently under the influence of alcohol or drugs, one of the Haitian defendants, 46-year-old Prosper Charles, told Conroy in English, “Never in my life.”
Speaking in Creole, his companion, Osner Lalanne, told the court that he suffers from diabetes. He allegedly told the border agents who picked him up that his mother perished in the earthquake.
The stories from this sudden exodus are dramatic, to say the least. Bellevue’s tale, as told in court filings, is about a police-officer-turned-exile who went into hiding — first in the U.S., then Canada — following the coup that ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
According to her lawyer, Bradley Stetler of Burlington, 41-year-old Bellevue was a police officer for nine years with the Haitian Commissariat of Jacmel. In 2004, she fled the country because a rebel group, the National Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Haiti, was carrying out a campaign of political violence and raiding police barracks for weapons. In court papers, Stetler stated that Bellevue feared for her life.
Bellevue entered the U.S. through Miami using what prosecutors say was a fraudulent visa belonging to a male citizen of Mexico, a document that reportedly cost her $6000. She applied for asylum but was denied. She was ordered to leave the U.S. in 2006, and went to Canada.
Today, Bellevue is being held at Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton. She has one sister who lives in New York City, another in Georgia, and a brother in Florida, all of whom are legal U.S. residents. A third sister still lives in Haiti and was paralyzed when her house collapsed in the earthquake.
One of the stateside sisters, who asked not to be named, told Seven Days that Bellevue left Canada without telling anyone in the family she was going. She also said her sister is in poor health. In addition to uterine fibroids that require surgery, she says, Bellevue also suffers from anemia, hypertension and ulcers.
Bellevue’s lawyer believes the combination of her medical condition, proximity to family and lack of a criminal record should win his client’s release.
U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin argues that Bellevue is a flight risk who previously entered the country using bogus papers, then disappeared when a judge ordered her back to Haiti.
Bellevue’s arrest was typical of what border agents are seeing: She and her friends were picked up in the middle of the night, walking along a remote, wooded road near the border.
Other border crossings have been more involved — and more perilous. Rivalson Phiseme and Descieux Fevrius allegedly paid a Montréal cabbie $100 for a ride to the border on March 5, then walked through the woods for two hours before following lights to Route 105 in North Troy. Four other Haitians allegedly walked on frozen shoreline ice around the Highgate Springs port of entry to get into the United States.
For those who “make it,” winning protected status is no sure thing. Only Haitians who were already in the U.S. when the earthquake hit in January are eligible. But that doesn’t appear to be deterring Bellevue or scores of other Haitians from trying to get here. Perhaps they figure that no one could prove they haven’t been here all along.
Coffin suggests that same idea in a motion asking the court to keep Bellevue locked up. “If she entered surreptitiously,” Coffin wrote, “who would know that she was not here on the date of the quake?”
Patrick Giantonio, executive director of Vermont Immigration and Asylum Advocates, says there was a “mass movement” of Haitians from the U.S. to Canada in recent years because Canada had a policy of not deporting Haitians. Giantonio suggests some may have had better lives in the U.S., and that reclaiming them may be worth the risk of getting caught at the border.
Where the detained Haitians will end up isn’t clear, Giantonio says. He suspects that those without a criminal record will likely be released into the U.S., even if they had outstanding deportation orders before they went to Canada. He also predicts many will be released under an “order of supervision” — a kind of immigration limbo that would let the Haitians work without granting them full permanent residency.
At one recent arraignment, a judicial marshal chatting before the hearing suggested the detained Haitians be sent home to rebuild their country, rather than rotting in U.S. jails.
“Feed them, clothe them, have them live in tents,” the marshal said. “It’s better than having them in jail.”