Haitian immigrants find support in Southeast Florida diocese

April 3, 2007

Henri Petithomme, a Haitian living in Miami, began a fast April 4 at St. Paul and Les Martyrs d'Haiti Episcopal Church in Miami in support of the Haitian immigrants who survived a three-week ordeal at sea to arrive in Florida last week.

Petithomme's fast is in support of "Temporary Protected Status" for the 101 Haitians who survived 22 days aboard a dilapidated 40-foot boat on their journey to the United States. He will remain at St. Paul's for the duration of his fast, according to the Rev. Canon J. Fritz Bazin, rector.

Petithomme began his fast the day after Bishop Leo Frade and many of the clergy of the Diocese of Southeast Florida spoke up for the immigrants from the steps of Trinity Cathedral in Miami.

"Jesus was a refugee in Egypt, and they did not send him back," said Frade at a press conference on the porch of the cathedral. Flanked by Assistant Bishop James Ottley and the Rev. Frantz Casseus, diocesan Haitian Commission chair, Frade criticized the decision to immediately take the Haitians into custody.

"It is the time of Passover for the Jews, it is Holy Week for the Christians," said Frade as he and his clergy exited the cathedral after the traditional Holy Week Chrism Eucharist and Renewal of Ordination Vows. "In this holy time we are asking for mercy and understanding for these men and women and children that have arrived onto our shores."

He again pledged the church's support. "If these people are allowed to stay, we are willing to take them," he said. "There are priests here from all over the diocese -- they are ready to help."

Frade urged everyone in the community to write letters to senators and representatives, as well as to President Bush, asking for fair treatment for the Haitian refugees. Local media carried the story and noted that the Diocese of Southeast Florida includes seven Haitian congregations.

"As we prepare to celebrate our Lord's resurrection, may we commit ourselves as a community and a nation to do all we can to help bring about a resurrection for our neighbors in Haiti," he said.

Held in detention centers
Thirteen of those who arrived March 28 on Hallandale Beach, Florida, are minors. They are staying at a Miami hotel and spending their days at a shelter, according to the Miami Herald. Six adults, ill and dehydrated when they left the boat, are still in a local hospital. Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, told the Herald that 82 of the immigrants are being held at area detention centers.

The plight of the Haitians has drawn the attention and support of a number of groups in Florida. The Roman Catholic Archbishop, John C. Favalora, deplored the contrast between the treatment of Haitian and Cuban migrants. "Just as the Cuban people have rightly deserved to be given special treatment because of the situation in their country, I believe the same argument can and should be made in terms of the needs of the Haitian people," he said at a news conference.

A Cuban organization, Brothers to the Rescue, took up the Haitians cause as well. Jose Basulto, the Brothers president, told the Herald "The Cuban community has been deeply touched by the suffering of the Haitians who have been detained. We are asking the U.S. government for justice and to allow them to stay in the United States." The group held a mass and candle vigil for the Haitians Sunday.

Continuing support
Within the last few years, the Episcopal Church has repeatedly called on the US government and the president to offer temporary protected status to Haitians fleeing their country. A resolution passed in 2005, asked the presiding bishop to communicate to the administration "the deep concerns of the Episcopal Church over the tragedy facing the Haitian people" and noted the special relation the Episcopal Church has to Haiti as its largest diocese.

In 2004, the Executive council passed a resolution urging the US administration "to end its policy of interdicting Haitians fleeing violence and persecution or being otherwise prevented from having their claims for protection fairly assessed."

In just a few weeks, the almost annual Haiti Connection meeting will bring dozens of supporters of the Episcopal Church of Haiti and its many missions to Miami. Missionaries, mission sending organizations, companion diocese members, members of medical mission teams and others will gather April 23-25 to coordinate work that has been on-going for decades. To learn more about ways to help, visit haiticonnection.org or contact the Office of Episcopal Migration Ministries.