Army vet enters second week of hunger strike
By Laura Wides-Munoz, The Associated Press, 17 April 2007

A Haitian-American U.S. Army veteran entered the second week of a hunger strike Tuesday to protest the detention of 101 Haitian migrants who landed in South Florida in a dilapidated sailboat.

Henri Petithomme, 32, is drinking only water and Gatorade and spoke in barely audible sentences as he described his goals.

He wants the migrants released to their families as they await their deportation hearings so they can work closely with their attorneys to prepare their cases. Ultimately, he hopes the U.S. will grant temporary legal status to Haitians who are in the country illegally, as it has done in the past for citizens from several Central American nations following major natural disasters, or in cases of major political strife or other extreme situations.

Petithomme is part of a new generation of Haitian activists who have grown up in the United States. His Haitian parents brought him to Miami when he was 3 and he speaks Creole with an American accent. He has had little direct experience with the upheaval that has beset Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.

But seeing the migrants looking starved and gaunt as they came off the boat awoke something in him, Petithomme said

“I felt a calling,” Petithomme said Monday, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with one of his homeland’s founding fathers as he rested on a pew at St. Paul Episcopal Church in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood.

“This is a peaceful way of accomplishing a goal, the same way Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi used,” he added.

Images of the Haitians’ arrival March 28 caused an outcry from the Haitian community. A week later, more than 1,000 people protested their detention outside Miami’s central federal immigration office.

Advocates lined up free attorneys for the entire group, which includes about a dozen children. At least half a dozen migrants passed the first step needed to seek asylum by demonstrating to an immigration officer they have a “credible threat” of persecution if they return to Haiti. Now they must plead their case before an immigration judge.

Unlike Cubans, who are generally allowed to stay if they reach U.S. soil illegally, most Haitians who make similar trips are sent back.

But immigration advocates say they are outraged that the U.S. government detains Haitians until a decision is made either way. Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center director Cheryl Little warned that the Haitians will be ill-prepared for their court hearings unless they are released from detention.

“A lot of [pro bono] lawyers don’t have time to go out to the detention centers and wait hours to see their clients before the hearings,” she said.

The government has cited potential terrorist threats as the reason for detaining the migrants, even though Haiti is not on the list of nations the Department of Homeland Security considers of “special interest” because of alleged support of terrorism. Cuba is on that list.

A message left for Homeland Security officials was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Petithomme’s campaign has garnered the attention of several Florida congressional members. Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek visited him and sent a letter Petithomme wrote to the White House. Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen read the Bible with him on Monday.

“We’ve got to make sure they have a fair system so they have proper access to legal advocates,” she said. “I don’t think that’s happening now.