Death by Asylum

Haitian novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat was born near Port-au-Prince in 1969 under the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. When she was 2, her father left Haiti on a tourist visa and found work as a taxi driver in New York. In 1971, Danticat’s mother also left for New York, leaving Edwidge in Haiti in the care of her aunt and uncle, Denise and Rev. Joseph Dantica. When she was 12, Edwidge joined her parents in New York, where she learned English. She published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, at age 25, for which she won a Pushcart Prize.

In October 2004, Joseph, her 81-year-old uncle, who pastored a small church near Port-au-Prince, was caught in the crossfire between U.N. peacekeeper tanks, the Haitian police, and armed gangs. His life was threatened. He decided to leave Haiti for the United States until things calmed down. Upon arriving in Miami—with correct, complete, and valid documents—he was put in hand and ankle manacles by officers of the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent to Krome Detention Center. Within two days, he was dead.

Edwidge Danticat’s book Brother, I’m Dying—nominated in January for a National Book Critics Circle Award—recounts the events that led to her uncle’s death in custody and shines a light on the sometimes-lethal consequences of U.S. immigration policy. Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger interviewed Danticat by e-mail in January 2008.

—The Editors

Rose Marie Berger: Many people feel that the U.S. immigration system is antiquated, inefficient, and—as in the case of your uncle, Rev. Joseph Dantica, and many others—also deadly. What was your perception of the U.S. immigration system before the death of your uncle while under Customs and Border Patrol custody and what are your insights now?

Edwidge Danticat: In the 1980s, after I moved to the United States from Haiti, a lot of people started coming to Miami from Haiti by boat. At that time my father was a deacon in a church in Brooklyn, and on Sunday afternoons he would take me with him to visit people who were being detained in the Brooklyn Navy Yard—people who had arrived by boat in Miami and were sent to Brooklyn for detention. That was my first view of detention of Haitian asylum seekers.

Haiti was then ruled by a brutal dictatorship that was supported by the United States, but that seemed to make no difference in the equally brutal treatment people received when they tried to flee that dictatorship by all possible means.

Even before I came to the United States, I saw some of the downside of immigration. I spent my childhood without my parents, who spent many years trying to get us admitted to the United States after they had been here many years and had two children here. I saw lines and lines of people stand in front of the U.S. consulate in Haiti, daily, in the sun, with a mustard-colored envelope full of their documents under their arms.

I had visited people in immigration detention centers in Miami even before my uncle was detained, so I knew the worst of it even before my uncle died in immigration custody at 81 years old. Of course, it hit closer to home when he was arrested and put in jail for seeking asylum. He was, after all, an old man. Even with all I knew about the U.S. immigration system—and its treatment of Haitian asylum seekers in particular—I would never have imagined that my uncle would be allowed to die under those conditions in U.S. custody.

Berger: Your uncle was politically active in Haiti as a young man and then seemed to give that up when he became a Baptist minister. But then his church and neighborhood were caught in the literal crossfire of Haiti’s social and political violence. Tell me about your uncle, his faith, and his political outlook.

Danticat: My grandfather was what is called in Haiti a “Caco.” He fought against the first U.S. occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934. Growing up with that kind of father, my uncle and father were very politically aware. When they moved to the capital from their home in the countryside in the 1940s, my uncle became an organizer for a man named Daniel Fignole, a populist and friend of the poor. Fignole was president of Haiti for 19 days before he suffered a coup d’état that began the Duvalier dictatorship, which lasted nearly 30 years. That’s when my uncle left politics and became a minister. When he abandoned politics, he found comfort in his faith and always hoped for a better future for Haiti. He often prayed for Haiti’s presidents, for the young people. I think he hoped that some miracle would get Haiti out of its worst moments.

Berger: In your recent memoir Brother, I’m Dying, you illustrate in detail the frustrating maze of illogical rules, paperwork, and constraints in the immigration system even for someone, like your uncle, who has all the proper papers. Were you surprised by your inability to influence the system to get your uncle released? How does systemic and personal racism factor into your uncle’s death?

Danticat: I did not really want to influence the system. I wanted to go through all the proper channels to get my uncle released from custody after he was detained. I didn’t want to make demands that other families could not make. In any case, I didn’t have the time to do it even if I wanted to.

I think racism was probably a huge factor in my uncle’s death. Haitians in Miami have a very low rate of being granted asylum and the reason for it, I think, is because we are black and because we are poor. We are also not believed when we say we are fleeing for our lives. I have seen people with burns all over their bodies, with wounds and gashes. These people are in detention saying, this is why I am here, and the immigration judge still does not believe them, even when U.S. policies have created the conditions that force people to flee Haiti in the first place. I am not saying that everyone should be allowed in the United States, but we need to have a system that is fair and equal and gives everyone the same consideration.

Berger: As an artist you are able to witness against injustice through the crafting of written words, as you have done in Brother, I’m Dying. Does the book vindicate the indignity and death your uncle suffered? How has the experience of writing the book changed you spiritually?

Danticat: People sometimes say, “You should have closure now, Edwidge. You’ve written this book.” Writing the book was part of a spiritual process that does not end with the book being published. I was changed a great deal by this process, of course. I lost two very important people to me, my father [who died the same year] and my uncle. They both suffered so much at the end, in part so we—my family here—can thrive. The gift I ended up with at the end was my daughter, who was born as these men were dying. I wouldn’t say that the book vindicates the deaths completely. It’s certainly the only vindication we’ve had, so I am glad I wrote it.

There was an investigation done by the Inspector General [of the Department of Homeland Security] on my uncle’s death, and the outcome was that they said no one did anything wrong. I am saying in the book that something was done wrongly, unjustly, and inhumanely, and saying it in a larger forum than we would have had in any court, so I am grateful for that. I hope this book and others like it are used in the training of U.S. customs officers and immigration workers. If they can only remember that they are dealing with human beings at possibly the worst moments of their lives and not mere numbers or so-called “aliens,” then they would do a better job. People’s lives could be saved and we would all be better off—as human beings and as a country—for it.

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