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Yale Law Students, Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, Team Up To Help Haitian Earthquake Refugees

NOTE:  Just hours after this story was published on our website and reported in The New York Times, The Times reported that most of the detainees had been released.

Students from Yale Law School’s clinical programs and attorneys from the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center recently teamed up to assist more than a dozen Haitian refugees being held indefinitely at a detention center in South Florida.

With financial support from the Law School, six students spent their spring break at the Broward Transitional Center north of Miami conducting interviews with the refugees, tracking down potential sponsors in the United States, and drafting letters to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers requesting that the refugees be released from detention. 

Students who volunteered in Florida, L-R:  Dror Ladin ’10, Sergio Perez ’10, Adrienna Wong ’10, Jeffrey Kahn ’10, Jason Glick ’12, and Jonathan Smith ’11

The refugees had flown to the U.S. in the chaotic aftermath of the devastating January 12 earthquake. Some had been at the airport in Port-au-Prince seeking humanitarian aid when they were waved onto military planes. Others were ushered onto flights by physicians, who told them they could find medical care in the United States.

Upon arrival, they were detained, placed in removal proceedings, and in most instances, ordered removed from the country. However, because the U.S. has currently halted deportations to Haiti, the refugees were not able to leave and are now stuck in detention limbo with no end in sight.

Under U.S. immigration laws, ICE has the authority to detain immigrants prior to their deportation. But since deportations are on indefinite hold, the law students and FIAC attorneys have urged ICE to release the detainees, arguing that ICE no longer has the authority to detain them.

“It is really baffling that those who have sponsors in the U.S. willing to welcome them into their homes remain in detention,” said Yale Law student Jeffrey Kahn ’10. “Many of these refugees have lost their family members and are traumatized. Some survived after being buried in rubble. Most of them no longer have homes in Haiti. And now, despite the fact that they have loved ones in the U.S. willing to take them in, ICE refuses to release them.”

The project grew out of the Yale Law School immigration clinics’ collaborative efforts to register Haitians in Connecticut for temporary protected status (TPS), which allows those who were in the U.S. at the time of the earthquake to remain and work legally for 18 months. Approximately 30 Law School volunteers staffed a TPS drive in February and, energized by the event, they sought additional ways to put their legal skills to good use on behalf of Haitians.

Upon learning that FIAC was looking for assistance, Kahn, who is working on a dissertation on the history of Haitian migration to the U.S., submitted a proposal to the Law School, and it was approved.

“This seemed like an excellent way for Yale Law students to use the immigration law skills they developed in their clinics to help with the earthquake relief effort,” said Yale Law School Associate Dean of Student Affairs Sharon Brooks ’00. “We were happy to support the project.”

Adrienna Wong ’10, one of the clinic students on the team, said the experience was a positive one, though at times emotionally intense. “Some days, we’d spend hours in the detention center, listening to the heartbreaking stories of the refugees and gathering any information we could on their contacts in the U.S.,” said Wong. “Then we’d spend the rest of the day calling an uncle in Haiti and a cousin in the U.S. until we found sponsors willing to take in the refugees. It was exhausting but rewarding work.”

Although the earthquake refugees still remain in detention, their plight has been covered by The New York Times and is gaining national attention. “We’ll be following the situation closely,” said Yale Law student Sergio Perez ’10. “We’re invested in the plight of these refugees.”