Lawyers are fighting for the man they say the US wrongly deported to Haiti


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Paul Pierrilus was deported two years ago from the US to Haiti where he was trying to survive in a chaotic and violent country where he was not born and had never lived.

Both his parents are Haitian, but immigrated to the French Caribbean territory of St. Martin where Pierrilus was born. The family did not apply for citizenship for him in either Haiti or St. Martin, and he later moved to the US when he was 5 years old. He grew up in New York speaking English.

Displaced—after a long delay—due to a drug conviction two decades ago, Pierrilus is now in Haiti, where he doesn’t speak Haitian Creole, has been unable to find work and has little savings left as he hopes for a way out of the volatile country.

“You have to be mentally strong to deal with this kind of thing,” Pierrilus said. “A country where people are kidnapped every day. A country where people are killed. You have to be strong.”

The 42-year-old financial adviser spends most of his days holed up inside a house reading self-help, business and marketing books in a neighborhood where gunfire often echoes outside.

Pierrilus’ U.S. lawyers are still fighting his deportation order, leaving him in legal limbo as the Biden administration ramps up deportations to Haiti, despite calls from activists for a temporary halt amid the Caribbean country’s deepening chaos.

His case has become emblematic of what some activists describe as the discrimination Haitian immigrants face in the overburdened US immigration system. More than 20,000 Haitians have been deported from the US in the past year, as thousands more continue to leave Haiti in dangerous boat crossings that sometimes result in mass drownings.

Cases like Pierrilus’ where people are deported to a country where they have never lived are unusual, but they do happen occasionally.

Jimmy Aldoud, born to Iraqi parents in a refugee camp in Greece and whose family immigrated to the US in 1979, was deported to Iraq in 2019 after multiple felony convictions. Having health problems and not knowing the language in Iraq, he died a few months later in a case often cited by lawyers.

Pierrilus’ parents took him to the United States to live a better life and receive a higher quality of education.

When he was in his early 20s, he was convicted of selling crack cocaine. Because he was not a US citizen, Pierrilus was transferred from criminal detention to immigration detention, where he was deemed a Haitian citizen by his ancestry and ordered deported to Haiti.

Pierrilos managed to delay the deportation with several legal challenges. Because he was considered neither a danger to the community nor a flight risk, he was released, issued a work permit and ordered to check with immigration authorities every year.

He became a financial planner.

Then, in February 2021, he was deported without warning, and his lawyers don’t know exactly why his status changed.

Attorneys for the nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights in Washington have taken on his case. “We are demanding that the Biden administration bring Paul home,” said the organization’s attorney Sarah Decker.

The French St. Martin does not automatically grant French citizenship to those born in his territory to foreign parents, and his family did not seek it. They also did not formally apply for Haitian citizenship, which Pierillus is entitled to.

Although he could obtain Haitian citizenship, his lawyers argued that he is not currently a citizen of Haiti, had never lived there and should not be deported to a county with such political instability.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a brief general statement to The Associated Press that every country has an obligation under international law to accept the return of its nationals who are ineligible to remain in the U.S. or any other country. An ICE spokeswoman said no further information could be provided about Pierrilus’ case, including what evidence the U.S. government has that he is an alleged Haitian citizen and why 13 years passed before he was suddenly deported.

In 2005, the Board of Immigration Appeals rejected an appeal by Pierrilus’ previous lawyers to stop his deportation, saying “it is not necessary for the respondent to be a citizen of Haiti for that country to be named as a country of removal.” Decker, his current attorney, disputes that finding.

Pierillus said that while being deported he told immigration officers, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not from where you’re trying to send me.”

Broken and handcuffed, he said he stopped resisting. As he boarded the flight, he remembered women screaming and children crying. Inside he felt the same. Pierilos did not know when or if he would see his family or friends again.

After processing at the airport, someone lent Pierrilus a cell phone so he could call his parents. They gave him contacts for a family friend where he could stay temporarily. Since then, gang violence has forced him to bounce through two more houses.

Warring gangs have expanded their control of territory in the Haitian capital to about 60 percent since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, looting neighborhoods, raping and shooting civilians.

The UN warned in January that Haitians were facing their worst humanitarian emergency in decades. More than 1,350 kidnappings were reported last year, more than double the previous year. Murders increased by 35%, with more than 2,100 reported.

Pierillus says he saw a man driving through his neighborhood get shot in the face as bullets shattered windows and grazed the man’s car.

“Can you imagine that? This guy is spinning around trying to get out of the area. I don’t know what happened to the guy,” he said.

As a result, he rarely goes out and relies on his faith for hope. He says he stopped going to church after watching a live service in April 2021 in which gangs broke into the church and kidnapped a pastor and three worshipers.

Pierillus speaks with his parents at least once a week, focusing on the progress of his case rather than the challenges in Haiti.

He hesitated to share his first impressions of his parents’ homeland when he landed in Haiti two years ago. “I had mixed feelings,” he said. “I wanted to see what it was like in my day, not under these conditions.”

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