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Haitians jittery at rumors of federal crackdown

Rony Francois, a 30-year-old Greyhound bus driver from Dania, was stopped by authorities on Christmas Eve while on his way to church and thrown in jail.

His only crime, his wife says, is his nationality.

Rony Francois is Haitian. He has been in this country since 1995 and was in the process of obtaining residency, his wife said.

"He's never been in any trouble, never committed any crime," said 23-year-old Merline Francois, holding the couple's 10-month-old son on her hip. "Why arrest someone like that?"

It's a question Haitians around the state are asking. Activists from Miami to Orlando say immigration authorities have detained, and in some cases deported, scores of Haitians the past two months.

"It's a witch hunt," said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami.

Federal immigration officials deny any crackdown on Haitians, and the number of Haitians deported this year has dropped. Immigration officials said they could not provide information on the number of those detained or deported since the end of September.

Whether detentions have increased or not, reports of agents asking people for identification at bus stops have racheted up anxiety among Haitians, some of whom now rarely leave their homes, Haitian activists say.

Bastien said one Haitian woman said immigration authorities boarded a Miami city bus and asked everyone for their identification. In West Palm Beach, a popular youth pastor who was in the process of pursuing permanent residency was arrested in his home.

In Orlando, federal agents went to a Sav-a-Lot grocery and arrested a handful of Haitians. Others who did not have their immigration paperwork with them also were detained, said Edwige Romulous, a Haitian radio host.

Even in the Tampa Bay area _ where there have been no reports of immigration sweeps _ Haitians say they are afraid.

"There is so much fear in the Haitian community," said Laude Saint Preux, the president of the Haitian Education Project, a St. Leo University group that promotes cultural awareness and understanding about the island nation from the school's Pasco County campus. "You may be stopped anywhere, any time and detained."

Is the fear justified?

Immigration authorities say the perceived rise in recent detentions is only rumor. They say they are aggressively enforcing the laws on everyone.

"Our enforcement operations do not target any one race," said Barbara Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Miami.

Gonzalez said that in fiscal year 2004 _ from Oct. 1, 2003 to Sept. 31, 2004 _ there were 753 Haitians deported to the island nation. That compares to 1,019 in fiscal year 2003.

Gonzalez said she didn't have statistics for the months since Sept. 31, or for the number of detentions.

Others see cause for concern. Last week, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center issued a draft report saying that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, local police officers have more aggressively questioned all foreign nationals about their immigration status. The group's executive director, Cheryl Little, says the war on terrorism has been turned into a war on immigrants.

"We're targeting people who have nothing to do with terrorism and who are not even suspected of terrorism," Little said.

In Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood _ a mix of tropical-colored wooden buildings, hair salons and bookstores _ everyone has heard about the detentionstories. Haitian radio stations routinely warn people about "Ajan Imigrasion" _ the Creole phrase for immigration agents.

"Why is it only Haitians?" said Sylvie Polidor, 33, of Miami. "Why would they want to do that to people? We're paying taxes just like everyone else."

Dr. Georges Metellus, program director of the Center for Haitian Studies and Health Services in Miami, said many Haitians are not seeking benefits available to immigrants because they are afraid authorities will deport them.

Metellus said he has no evidence that mass numbers of people are being detained or deported. He said he is aware of some people with criminal backgrounds who have been sent home.

Some, like Rony Francois of Dania, have no criminal record, though his immigration status could not be determined Friday.

Immigration officials can detain people for many reasons, including missed appointments and administrative infractions as well as more serious problems such as a criminal accusation.

Metellus said in Haiti _ where the government has been corrupt for decades and armed thugs routinely invade people's homes _ widespread mistrust of the government is common. When people arrive in the United States, legally or illegally, they bring that mistrust with them.

So when a few people are deported or detained, the rumors fly and the stories grow.

Haitian activists in Miami have met with immigration authorities, but said they have received few answers to their questions. Activists in West Palm Beach are trying to organize rallies, and others are urging people to contact their congressional representative, who can push to find out what is happening throughout the state.

Tampa immigration lawyer John Ovink said he has seen no evidence of sweeps in the Tampa Bay area. But he said he thinks Haitians are unfairly targeted.

"Haitians have always been the black sheep of the immigration family," he said.

Ovink is among a number of immigration experts, politicians and clergy asking the federal government to grant temporary protected status to Haitians because of this year's political turmoil and natural disasters, such as Tropical Storm Jeanne, which killed more than 1,500 in the island nation.

The U.S. experts, along with the Haitian government, have asked the Bush administration to grant such status to 20,000 Haitians already living in the Unites States, saying that returning them to such conditions would not only be cruel, but a burden to an already troubled nation. Gov. Bush has partially backed the idea.

This immigration status change "wouldn't legally keep them here or give them green cards or anything," Ovink said. And if a person commits a crime in the United States, he or she still would be deported.

The U.S. government said it would consider not deporting Haitians on a case-by-case basis if they were from parts of the country affected by the storm. But the White House is still considering whether to grant Temporary Protected Status to the Haitians.

Many U.S. officials say they worry granting the change could spur thousands of Haitians to flee their country.

Just this Wednesday, the U.S. Coast Guard returned 208 Haitians to Port-au-Prince after finding them heading toward Florida packed onto a "grossly overloaded" sailboat in danger of capsizing.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report and information from the Associated Press was used. Tamara Lush can be reached at (727) 893-8612 or at lushsptimes.com.

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