Twenty bedraggled Haitian boat people today gave up achieving the dream for which thousands have risked their lives in small boats. They came home, trudging off a commercial jet from Puerto Rico, where hundreds have been held for months in a desolate detention camp pending immigration hearings.
"I thought I would find the Promised Land," said a dejected Bartold Millen, 27, who left this impoverished Caribbean island because he could not feed his wife and children while working as a $10-a-week sharecropper.
"In Miami, I didn't think I would get rich, just have something better. Even though I had very little in Haiti, I appreciate it more now," he said.
Perhaps in the small boat in which he set sail last July or in the Puerto Rican detention camp where several Haitian women threatened suicide out of frustration and boredom, the dream died. So Millen and 55 other Haitians begged the Immigration and Naturalization Service to let them go home.
A federal judge in Miami ordered their immediate return Saturday after a court-ordered fact-finding team determined they were revoking their asylum request voluntarily. Miami attorney Joel Hirschorn interviewed the Haitians after human rights activists charged that they had been coerced into dropping applications to stay in the United States.
"They have broken hearts, they have broken spirits," Hirschorn said after interviews through a Creole interpreter.
"They told us, 'I came to the United States to find a better life, but if the country doesn't want me, I want to go home,' " said interpreter Vivian Boulos. "All they want to do is go back to their misery in Haiti , which at least they can share with their loved ones."
The Haitians from Fort Allen, among 778 held behind barbed wire on the converted military base in Puerto Rico, represent the first mass voluntary return of boat people to this lush green island whose government receives half its annual budget from foreign aid.
Some sad Haitian statistics are not evident in travel brochures--a life expectancy of 52 years, 150 children out of 1,000 dead before their fourth birthday, four out of five Haitians illiterate, a population that earns an average of $260 a year and a tropical climate of political repression.
The INS claims it has 411 Haitian refugees scattered among five camps who have "voluntarily" withdrawn requests for stateside asylum.
After attorneys for the refugees in Miami argued in federal court that they remain unpersuaded the Haitians want to return of their own accord, U.S. District Court Judge James Kehoe sent an attorney to interview the refugees.
Despite what some activists charge is calculated harassment of Haitian refugees, none of the boat people said they wanted to return to the United States. "Even if they give me a free ticket, I would never go back," Millen said.
Haitian Interior Minister Edouard Berrouet assured reporters that the returnees would not be mistreated.
Members of the Haitian Red Cross helped load the refugees onto a red pickup truck for a ride to the bus station, as Berrouet asked them, "Tell me what I may tell the president for you."
"Tell him we are glad he made us come back," shouted one woman.