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
“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.