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Death By Homeland Security

by Jocelyn McCalla

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(IPS) NEW YORK, -- The Rev. Joseph Dantica died Nov. 3, shackled to a bed at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. He was 81, suffered from high blood pressure and had an enlarged prostate. Yet, the cause of death, according to officials at the Department of Homeland Security, was acute pancreatitis, which according to the agency predated his incarceration.

Rarely, however, do people who develop this illness die of it. Why was Dantica the exception?

Let's just state the obvious: Homeland Security officials have every reason to deny responsibility for Dantica's death. Linking the conditions under which he was detained to his death is something that the department does not want the common man or woman to do.

Officials don't want anyone to arrive at the conclusion that Dantica's death was precipitated by his detention, his isolation from his loved ones in Miami, or his inability to effectively communicate with his jailers, the medical personnel at the Krone Detention Center or at the hospital. Or that he may not have died from pancreatitis after all.

For the department, it's infinitely preferable to blame the victim for his misfortune.

No Haitian should take Homeland security's explanation at face value. They should demand an immediate and thorough investigation into the death and insist on a process that keeps them informed of the progress of the investigation at every step. They should do so, not because the U.S. government cannot be trusted when it comes to Haitian affairs, but because past evidence suggests the detention of asylum-seekers leads to worsened health conditions for them.

In short, Dantica's handling by the immigration authorities fits the rule and was no exception.

"Detention can induce fear, isolation and hopelessness, and exacerbate the severe psychological distress frequently exhibited by asylum seekers who are already traumatized." According to a study published by the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights a few years ago.

Dantica, a respected Baptist minister in Haiti, probably never imagined he would find himself one day behind bars in the United States. Though the United States became home for many of his relatives, Haiti was the home he left only for brief visits abroad. As recently as this past summer, he visited family in Florida, New York and Canada.

But on Oct. 24, he got caught in the terrible crossfire of the political violence and lawlessness that has gripped Haiti since September. He suffered threats to his life and was almost killed.

Together with his son, Maxo, he fled Oct. 29 to the United States, seeking shelter and comfort in the arms of his family. Instead upon arrival, he faced the hellish nightmare Haitian refugees before him have confronted when seeking asylum in the United States: held overnight at Miami International Airport; taken to Krome Detention Center; isolated from family, friends, and legal help; facing an immigration bureaucracy that from the top down has been hostile to Haitians' claims of fear of prosecution.

This brings us to the other rule that applies to Haitian asylum-seekers: They have been singled out by the U.S. government. Haitians have the lowest rate of approval on asylum applications. They are subject to lengthy detention in the United States. David Joseph who arrived in Miami in 2001 as a minor was jailed and remains in custody. He is now legally an adult in detention, thanks to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft whoa rgued Joseph be kept in detention while officials appeal a judge's decision to release him.

A third rule that appears to apply to Haitians is that although conditions in Haiti warrant a humane U.S. government response, it refused to grant them temporary protected status- a measure that may be invoked by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge because Haiti is in the throes of armed conflict and environmental disaster.

The Bush administration has refused to extend temporary protected status non-immigrant Haitians in the United States. But Hondurans and Nicaraguans were granted temporary protected status after an earthquake hit their countries in 1999. Temporary protected status for these nationals was renewed for the fifth year in a row.

Preferential treatment for Cuban asylum-seekers has been the norm since 1966: They can waltz their way to freedom once they file an application for asylum in this country.

What will it take to break these rules? Nothing less than the most important rule-breaker: Haitians should stop seeing themselves as powerless victims of a system that they can only hope will leave them alone to go about their business as they wish. Instead they should resolve to capitalize on their growing presence in America and use the tools of advocacy within their reach to flex their muscle and set back current U.S. policy.

Dantica's death illustrates what is wrong in Haiti, with U.S. policy in Haiti and toward Haitian refugees and immigrants on the States.

Dantica was an honorable man who provided schooling for hundreds of youths, jobs for scores of teachers and ministered to thousands. His example should be emulated and a fitting tribute would be ensuring that no other Haitian is subjected to the humiliation and abuse that he suffered in homeland security custody.

The national Coalition for Haitian Rights is mounting a campaign to seek justice for Dantica and change U.S. policy. Be part of the campaign: not just for Dantica but for your own sake. One can sign up with the campaign at or by writing to The National Colaition for Haitian Rights may be reached as (212)337-0005.

Jocelyn McCalla is executive director of the Manhattan-basd National Coalition for Haitian Rights

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Albion Monitor November 30, 2004 (

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