Homeless Haitians Told Not to Flee to U.S.
Published: January 18, 2010

MIAMI — America has a message for the millions of Haitians left homeless and destitute by last week’s earthquake: Do not try to come to the United States.

Every day, a United States Air Force cargo plane specially equipped with radio transmitters flies for five hours over the devastated country, broadcasting news and a recorded message from Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador in Washington.

“Listen, don’t rush on boats to leave the country,” Mr. Joseph says in Creole, according to a transcript released by the Pentagon. “If you do that, we’ll all have even worse problems. Because, I’ll be honest with you: If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”

Homeland Security and Defense Department officials say they are taking a hard line to avert a mass exodus from the island that could lead to deaths at sea or a refugee crisis in South Florida. Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is about 700 miles from Miami.

So far, there has been no sign of Haitians trying to flee the island by boat, United States officials say. Nor has there been a mass exodus of Haitians into the neighboring Dominican Republic, except for about 3,000 injured people who are being treated at hospitals just over the Dominican border, officials there say.

But United States officials say they worry that in the coming weeks, worsening conditions in Haiti could spur an exodus. They have not only started a campaign to persuade Haitians to stay put, but they are also laying plans to scoop up any boats carrying illegal immigrants and send them to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Department of Homeland Security officials have also transferred 200 illegal immigrants from the Krome Service Processing Center here — a federal jail for people awaiting deportation — to make room for a possible influx of Haitian migrants.

The State Department has also been denying many seriously injured people in Port-au-Prince visas to be transferred to Miami for surgery and treatment, said Dr. William O’Neill, the dean of the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, which has erected a field hospital near the airport there.

“It’s beyond insane,” Dr. O’Neill said Saturday, having just returned to Miami from Haiti. “It’s bureaucracy at its worse.”

Customs officials have allowed a total of 23 Haitians into the United States on humanitarian grounds for medical treatment, said a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

And late Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the United States would allow some orphaned children to enter the country temporarily on an individual basis.

A State Department spokesman, Noel Clay, said the United States had not suspended its visa requirements for Haitians trying to flee the disaster, even though the Department of Homeland Security has halted the deportations of Haitians already in the United States illegally.

“We urge Haitians in Haiti not to put their lives at additional risk by embarking on a dangerous sea voyage,” Mr. Clay said.

In the Dominican Republic, officials have adopted a similar stance. The secretary of foreign relations has ordered only Haitians with medical emergencies allowed into the country, and the Army has established checkpoints on roads leading from the border.

Sandra Severino, a spokeswoman for President Leonel Fernández, said there had not been a huge spike in illegal immigration on the border, and indeed many Haitians already in the Dominican Republic are returning to help their families.

Officials in the Bahamas, which has a large Haitian population, are also keeping a close watch on the seas, but have not noticed a surge in boats carrying refugees, said the deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, T. Brent Symonette. He added that the Bahamas would not repatriate immigrants arriving from Haiti immediately, given the severity of the humanitarian crisis.

Few experts on immigration expect droves of Haitians to take to the seas in flimsy boats right away, though they add that it is hard to predict what will happen in the coming weeks. Most earthquake victims are still struggling to find food and water; they are in no condition to plan and provision a sea voyage. In addition, the Coast Guard currently has five cutters patrolling Haitian waters.

Lt. Commander Chris O’Neil said the Coast Guard had not spotted any boats leaving Haiti with refugees on Monday. “None, zero,” he said, “and no indication of anyone making preparations to do so.” He said anyone caught leaving the island and heading toward Florida would be returned to Haiti.



South Florida hospitals defend role on halt of Haiti airliftStory
The U.S. military stopped flying critically injured Haitians to Florida, saying it’s not clear who’ll pay for their care.

South Florida hospital spokespeople strongly denied Saturday that their facilities are refusing to take more trauma patients from Haiti, leaving them to die at field hospitals in the earthquake-ravaged country.

Military planes stopped flying the injured to Florida on Wednesday, after Gov. Charlie Crist wrote to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, asking the federal government for help covering millions of dollars in care that hospitals around the state are providing, the New York Times reported in Saturday’s editions.

Crist pointed out that Florida hospitals were “at capacity.”

Friday, Maj. James Lowe, deputy chief of public affairs for the United States Transportation Command, told the Times that “the places they were being taken, without being specific, were not willing to continue to receive those patients without a different arrangement being worked out by the government to pay for the care.”

Not so, said Dr. William O’Neill, executive dean of clinical affairs at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

Although “there hasn’t been a well-defined plan to pay for uninsured people… we are still willing to take people even if we don’t know who is going to pay,” O’Neill said Saturday. He said UM doctors in Haiti are not putting injured patients on planes, since they’ve been told that they won’t be flown to Florida.

His colleague at UM’s field hospital in Port-au-Prince, Dr. Barth A. Green, said Friday that “people are dying in Haiti because they can’t get out.”

“I have to take him at his word,” O’Neill said.

He estimated that the treatment for about 50 patients brought to Ryder Trauma center would range from $50,000-$100,000, and called the dustup between the state and the feds “a little bit of a power contest… to see who will blink first.”

In an e-mail to members on Friday, Jaime S. Caldwell, vice president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association, seemed to blame Crist.

“We are beginning to hear that hospitals are being identified as the reason for the Governor’s decision to discontinue the medical flights from Haiti. And, the reason being given is that hospital’s wanted to know how they were going to get paid,” Caldwell wrote.

“I have been active in this effort since the beginning. At no time have I heard any hospital in Southeast Florida say that they wouldn’t take a Haitian earthquake survivor because of financial reasons. On the contrary. At every point along the way the healthcare industry has been advised to rigorously document their expenses associated with the care provided to these unfortunate patients and that efforts were underway to determine financial responsibility.

“At no time did any hospital say, `Don’t send any more to us because we aren’t getting paid!’ ”

He said that “about 60 percent of the hospitals in Southeast Florida have, or had, [patients] transported from Haiti.”

But Crist too has denied he’s responsible.

In a statement Saturday, he noted that “between 60 and 80 Haitian orphans arrived at Miami International Airport” Friday night, and that “at no time has Florida closed our doors to those impacted by the earthquake in Haiti.

“To the contrary, Florida has been at the forefront of the crisis in Haiti — caring for the injured, reuniting families, comforting those who have been devastated by loss.”

Saturday, during a Tampa street-festival breakfast, Crist said that the intent of his letter to HHS was to say that “we need help from our federal friends. Florida, because of its proximity to Haiti, is really bearing the brunt of this, and we’re happy to do that, but if our sister states and the federal government could help — that was the intent.”

It was not, he continued, “to stop anything. We’re humanitarians.”

He said that Secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families, George Sheldon, told him several days ago that the state’s costs had reached about $7 million, and that Sebelius and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano “are both pushing for [federal assistance] and it should come soon.”

O’Neill said that UM plans to replace its temporary facility in about two months with a permanent one on 100 acres close to the U.S. hospital ship USNS Comfort landing site.

Miami Herald staff writer John Dorschner contributed to this report.