Haitian-born Frantz Saintil always longed to be an American. At the age of 4, his family left Haiti to settle in the U.S., and during his 22 years in both Miami and Colorado, he fully integrated into American culture. “I had no connection to Haiti,” Saintil explains over the phone from Haiti. “I didn’t even identify as a Haitian because I didn’t want to be discriminated against.”
Although he may have considered himself to be an American, subsequent to serving a harsh eight-year prison sentence in Colorado for a fistfight, the U.S. government dealt him a rude awakening and deported him to his birthplace at 19.
“Deportation? What are you talking about? This is my home here. It was just unbelievable to hear,” recalls Saintil, who after 11 years of living in Haiti is still stunned by the circumstances that brought him back to the island of his birth.
Since 1996, the Anti-Terrorism Act has allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport immigrants, including legal residents with criminal records (like Saintil) without opportunities for them to seek asylum or even consult an attorney. Crimes can include such minor infractions as traffic violations or petty misdemeanors. Saintil is just one of hundreds of thousands of non-citizens who were torn from their families in the States—where they’ve spent most of their lives—and force to build a new life in a country most have no recollection of, no family connections in, and no financial means to.
Saintil’s story and those of six other deported Haitian men are the focus of a captivating new documentary by filmmakers Rachèle Magloire (Haitian) and Chantal Regnault (French). Deported takes an unflinching look at the plight of Haitian deportees trying to desperately integrate in a foreign society that is less than welcoming.
Magloire, Regnault and Saintil spoke to EBONY.com about the making of the movie, the draconian U.S. deportation policy, and the hostile conditions that await Haitian deportees on the island.
EBONY: There are so many dire issues affecting the Haitian population. Why point the spotlight on the subject of deportees?
Chantal Regnault: There is nothing illegal about deporting criminals. This has been done since the 19th century. But the change in the law in 1996 made a drastic change where masses of people are being shipped back with complete disregard of the human consequences. They often have wives and children in America and have been there for 20 or 25 years.
Before 1996, federal judges had the power to decide case by case. You could get a lawyer and a make a case for staying in the country. What’s happening is that there is a breaking down of these families. The film raises the question, “Were these guys treated fairly by the country that deported them and by Haiti?” We decided to investigate.
Rachèle Magliore: In the ’90s in Haiti, there started to be a lot of talk about deportees importing violence. I started to meet them in the street and talk to them. I learned that these guys are lost in Haiti. I left Haiti when I was 4, and I grew up as an immigrant in Quebec. I chose to move back to Haiti in 1987 at 25, and it was a shock, and I knew Haiti’s history and culture. Can you imagine these men who have no clue? I started to think about what it is to be deported. How do they feel and live?
Frantz Saintil: I hope that people will understand from the movie just how hard it is for us deportees. To transition from living in the U.S. your entire life to being sent to a strange place is very, very difficult to survive. You have no family, no friends, and the conditions are sub-human for the poor. The reality of living in Haiti is cruel for a lot of deportees. I think we need an opportunity to return home at one point.
EBONY: The Obama Administration has often said that those being deported are violent criminals. But according to a New York Times study, two-thirds of the two million cases of deportation involve people who committed traffic violations or had no criminal record. In fact, under Obama, those deported for traffic violations have risen from 43,000 during President Bush to more than 188,000.
RM: Most of the guys in the movie committed a crime but it wasn’t violent. It’s completely unfair what is happening. The Obama Administration did not ask themselves if this was a good policy. It’s a tough battle to fight this law.
CR: We have estimated that there are between 8,000 to 9,000 deportees in Haiti today. The lives of these people and their families will never be the same again.
EBONY: The men in the film served their time in prison. Even though they paid their debt to society, they are punished again with deportation.
FS: I ended up having a fistfight with another young man. I learned in high school in the U.S. that the penal system measured your crime depending on the severity of the infraction. I did not cause bodily harm, no blood and no weapon. I got eight years for it. I couldn’t even imagine being kicked out of my home. When the judge said deportation hearing, I couldn’t even believe it. I’m thinking, “Is my mom and my sister coming with me? What about my dog?” I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I had no idea living in Haiti was so extremely difficult. Everything you were used to is stripped away.
CR: In a way, it would make more sense if they were deported and not sent to jail first. Why do you keep them in jail all those years and then deport them? It’s crazy. A lot of these men really believed they were American even though they had not filed for citizenship. When they realize they are not American and can be deported, it’s too late.
RM: These men made mistakes because they were young, stupid and not thinking about tomorrow. Maybe they deserve a second chance. The youth in Haiti have learned a lot from this film too. They all want to go to the States, but now, they understand it’s not a paradise. It’s not easy there. When you are an immigrant, you don’t have the same rights and you definitely don’t have the right to a mistake.
EBONY: Reintegration is hard enough, but then you have the extreme discrimination deportees suffer at the hands of the community in Haiti. They can’t get jobs and they are often times falsely arrested. Why is there so much disdain for deportees?
FS: Imagine you live somewhere that is incredibly poor with no opportunities and finding out there is another person who lived in a more developed country that comes back to join you in these miserable conditions? That person becomes an undesirable. Having an opportunity to essentially go to paradise, get kicked out and come back to hell is shameful. They feel it was a wasted opportunity.
When you walk down the street, people point at you and assume you are a murderer. You are excluded from the normal society and you can’t get a job. Sometimes, I think I’d rather have stayed in prison in Colorado instead of coming to live in Haiti. That’s just how depressing it is.
I’m afraid of dying of misery and hunger. These are the things you feel every day here. That is what motivated me to start a support group for deportees, Development Partners Team Haiti, to help them make that transition from the U.S. to Haiti and provide some positive guidance.
RM: There were men who did not want to share their story with us. They were taking a big risk admitting who they were on camera. When we met Richard, he did not have a job and then he got one. He wasn’t sure if he should reveal on camera that he had a job. He decided to and that was a risk.
Being a deportee is something you have to live with forever. People will never forget in Haiti that you have been deported. The fact that we spoke English with these men helped get them to trust us and to remember their home in the U.S. If we chose to speak to them in Creole, it would have not been the same film.
CR: Some deportees have an easier time reintegrating than others, because they come from a different social background. They have family in Haiti who accept them, take care of them and protect them to the point where nobody knows they are a deportee. They are seen as Haitians who have made a choice to come back home.
Others are seen as American garbage by the government and the public in general. Poor deportees are not considered Haitian and do not belong in the country. It’s a human reaction to want to share your story, and it made those who opened up feel better—even if it was a big risk.
Check www.worldchannel.org to learn where The Deported is airing in your area.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.