Haitians in legal limbo often exploited. Some employers, landlords discriminate against immigrants who fear deportation
Miami — From behind the counter at the Guylou Patisserie in the Little Haiti section of Miami, Marise Obas, 20, smiles as she serves two customers pastries. She arrived in the United States two years ago from Haiti. Her cousin, who owns the pastry shop, gave her the job. Like many Haitians, she plunged quickly into English classes. Today she says she is having ''no problems.''
But many Haitians in south Florida are having serious problems, according to a Justice Department official, two private American lawyers, a Roman Catholic priest, several Haitian community leaders, and other Haitians interviewed.
The problems they cite include being overcharged on rent for housing that often is substandard; discrimination by employers in hiring and promotions; failure to receive job benefits for which they have made financial contributions; signing unfavorable life insurance, loan, and repair agreements without enough knowledge of English to realize the stringent terms, and falling victim to crimes by non-Haitians.
Many of the Haitian immigrants are taken advantage of because of their tenuous legal status in this country, says Jay LaRoche, a Haitian-American official in Miami with the Justice Department's Community Relations Service.
Congress has clearly indicated that many of the Haitians in the US who arrived illegally will be granted legal residence. A federal law gave many of them a special ''entrant'' status, along with some 125,000 Cubans who arrived in 1980. The special status blocked their deportation until Congress could decide who could stay permanently.
Last week the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) announced it was envoking a 1966 law to allow the noncriminal 1980 Cuban arrivals to apply for citizenship. Haitians are hoping Congress will now act to allow them to stay.
Meanwhile, they live in legal limbo, a precarious status that contributes to many of their problems.
''Anytime a white American comes to find a job, they always fire me to give the job to the white American,'' alleges Lener Miclis, 27, an illegal Haitian immigrant living in Florida City, Fla. ''I always do my job,'' he says. On other jobs, he alleges, he has not been given raises when American workers got them.
''When I ask why I don't get a raise, they say, 'Because you are Haitian,' '' claims Mr. Miclis. He says employers tell him they know Haitians send money back to their families in Haiti. Many do send money back.
The Rev. Thomas Wenski, an American priest in Miami who speaks Haitian creole , says some Haitians are ''exploited'' by US employers.
Some employers fail to contribute on behalf of the Haitian worker to social security, says Father Wenski, director of the Haitian Catholic Center.
Two Haitian sources said they knew of cases in which female Haitians allegedly were sexually harassed on the job.
A spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington says the EEOC has received complaints on behalf of Haitian workers. He referred this reporter to the EEOC office in Miami for details, but Maria Pares, a spokeswoman for that office said she could not release any information. And Federico Costales, director of the office, failed to return a call from this newspaper.
The EEOC in Miami is doing a ''terrible'' job, alleges Ira Kurzban, a private Miami lawyer who has worked for several years on Haitian immigration cases.
Each month, lawyers recover $2,000 to $3,000 in security deposits landlords had refused to return to Haitians, says Roger Biamby, director of the Haitian American Community Association in Dade county here.
And, he says, Haitians are often overcharged for poor apartments with ''broken windows, broken sinks, bathrooms inoperable, and rat infestation.''
Three Haitians complained that police in Florida City have taken money from Haitians that was rightfully theirs and not returned it. Florida City Police Chief John Folden was contacted and said he was certain there had been no misconduct by members of his department.
Mr. LaRoche of the Justice Department says some non-Haitians rob Haitian homes, knowing the Haitians are unlikely to press charges because of their tenuous legal status or lack of English. They are getting some federal and private assistance in responding to their problems. But not much.
On the federal side, a second relocation program is about to be launched for Haitians the INS has declared eligible to stay in the US. The main aim: move Haitians and their families out of rural areas with high unemployment to Northern cities where there are Haitian communities and job possibilities.
Earlier relocation efforts failed because they were handled largely as a ''travel agency'' program, says Richard Gutierrez, the Justice Department's CRS Coordinator of Immigration and Refuge Affairs.
The Haitians got travel money but little follow-up help. Many returned South with ''the first frost,'' he said here.
This time, Haitians will be sent to halfway homes, be enrolled in English classes, and have help finding jobs and adapting to the new culture, said Mr. Gutierrez.
Starting in February, some 200 Haitians will be relocated to places such as Washington, D.C.; Newark, N.J.; Chicago; and Boston, he said.
Sister Pat Downs, who works with Haitian aliens in the Bell Glade, Fla., area , says the relocation is an ''excellent'' idea, because of the extreme poverty of many Haitians living in that area. The Haitians rely heavily on seasonal farm migrant-labor work, she says.
The problems of Haitians living in the US illegally occur in both rural and urban areas, and the major one is their uncertain legal status in this country.
Attorney Kurzban says many face deportation at any time. He complains that the INS is proceeding with some deportation hearings before Congress has decided who will get to stay. Approximately 15,000 are seeking political asylum, according to the immigration agency.
Kurzban said lawyers for the Haitians will continue to fight deportation. Meanwhile, an INS spokesman says his agency is ''overwhelmed'' by the numbers of illegal aliens from many countries, despite a $64 million increase in the agency's budget for this fiscal year and the addition of 872 employees.