Andre Jean-Vierr left his wife and four childred in Haiti and came to America to look for work. He and 34 other bedraggled Haitians landed in Miami Dec. 29 after 22 days on a small homemade sailboat with no compass and not enough food or water for the journey.
After processing by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, Jean-Vierr, a 40-year-old auto mechanic, and his fellow passengers were deposited at the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in the black northwest section of Miami.
The church, one of several charitable organizations in Dale County aiding the refugees, has been inundated with hungry and homeless Haitians who have nowhere to sleep but on benches in the sanctuary. They eat meals of red bean stew in the social hall and wander aimlessly in the church's yard.
Local Immigration officials say there is no room to jail the hundreds of Haitians fleeing to the Florida coast each week. Nor can they send them back to Haiti, because a federal court order halted deportations until three class-action suits filed by Haitian refugee leaders have been decided in federal court later this month.
Because any decision is likely to be appealed, Florida's Haitian refugee problem could continue for years.
At the heart of INS policy is the belief that the Haitians seek refuge here for economic rather than political reasons. The United States has granted political asylum to only 58 of the 5,795 Haitians who have requested it since 1972.
"They are coming here for economic reasons and it has nothing to do with political persecution," said William Metcalf, INS' acting regional director.
Haitian leaders here disagree.
"As long as the [Jean-Claude] Duvalier regime remains in power, Haitians will continue to risk their lives in flimsy boats to come here," said Jean Just, director of the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami. "The U.S. has welcomed the Vietnamese boat people and Soviet Jews. This is a double standard of welcoming one group and harassing another."
Haiti, which occupies the western half of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, 700 miles southeast of Miami, is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with per capita annual income aveaging $225. It is a country the size of New Hampshire and Vermont, but with five times as many people on one-fifth the arable land.
Haitian leaders in Miami readily admit that most of the refugees arriving here are from the peasant class, but insist they are fleeing for political reasons.
"The refugees you are seeing now are what we call the peasants," said Geneus Therilus, vice president of the Haitian Inter-American Community Development Inc., a refugee self-help organization.
"There's a subconscious revolt against a dictatorship which is one of the most brutal on the face of the earth," he said, though he later admitted that "there are not as many killings as we used to have."
Accurate estimates of the number of Haitians in the Miami area are difficult to obtain, because many of those who arrive here illegally are not processed through the INS. They simply melt into the Haitian community. Immigration officials say they have records of 8,000 refugees; Dale County reports 23,000, and Haitian leaders estimate that 30,000 of their countrymen live in Miami.
"The refugees don't want to be identified because of harassment by immigration officials," said Therilus. "It makes it impossible to know exactly how many we have here."
One certainly is that the flow of Haitians willing to risk the open sea will continue as briskly as the Gulf Stream they must cross to reach U.S. shores.
They make the two-week, 700-mile journey in boats they have bought or made themselves.Some pay smugglers outrageous sums to ferry them here by motorboat or small plane.
Last August smugglers forced 18 Haitians at gunpoint to jump into the Atlantic a half-mile from the Florida shore. A woman and five of her several children drowned.
Some of the refugees pack 20 to a room with friends and relatives while others are absorbed by the large Haitian community in New York City. The Haitians, most of whom speak Creole, a mixture of French, English, Spanish and African dialects, have transformed a middle-class neighborhood in the nortwest section of Miami into an area now called "Little Haiti," where butchers sell goat meat and soft island music wafts through the air.
Although they are not allowed legally to work, most find menial jobs in factories and restaurants.
Dade County officials say the refugees strain local service agencies. However, relief for the county may be forthcoming if a bill to reimburse local governments for refugee services passes Congress.
Last month the Congressional Black Caucus publicly backed refugee status for the Haitians.
While the courts and the federal government haggle over the refugees, the Rev. James Emmanuel Jenkins often arrives at his Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in the morning to find 30 to 40 new Haitians waiting in the yard to be fed and clothed.
"Immigration people were dropping the refugees on street corners for them to crawl looking for food," said the tall, slender minister, who wears his hair slicked down and kisses the hands of female visitors. "The refugees are treated worse than dogs."
For the past two weeks Jenkins has been living in his church to keep the doors open around the clock. About 300 refugees sleep in clothes spread across the floor; more flock to the two-story whitewashed building at the sound of the dinner bell. Private citizens and local businesses have donated food and clothing.
"There is enough food in Dade County so that nobody has to go hungry," said one Miamian who brought a carload of canned food she collected in her neighborhood.
The Haitians, most of whom are Roman Catholic, also have received assistance from the local archdiocese, according to leaders. However, their welcome from the city's other large Caribbean groups has been lukewarm.
"We do not find the sympathy from the Cuban community that I would have expected," said Therulis of the Cubans, most of whom fled Fidel Castro's communist regime 20 years ago.
Andre Jean-Vierr, wearing new clothes he picked from a three-foot-high pile cluttering a corner, said to an interpreter that he was happy to be in America and that he hoped to bring his family here after he finds work.
Chilles Josephat, an 11-year-old boy who came here with his older brother on the same boat, was happy, too. "I was crying when we were on the boat because I felt hopeless," he said. "The waves were big and I thought I would never see the shore."