he first 17 of 1,900 Haitian boat people the government has held in jails for almost a year walked to freedom from a camp in the Everglades near here today.
Mobbed by reporters outside the barbed wire-covered gates of the Krome detention camp, Etienne Francois, who had been in Krome 11 months, thanked God that a federal judge had ordered his release, and said in Creole, "Now I am going to pray for the release of the others."
A half dozen Haitian exiles waited outside the camp, 25 miles west of Miami, where 390 Haitians await release. The judge's release also covers other refugees that the government is holding as illegal aliens in Texas, West Virginia, Kentucky, New York, Louisiana and Puerto Rico.
As the refugees left, the waiting exiles sang the Haitian national anthem, shouted "Liberty" and waved palm fronds.
"Today is Palm Sunday. Easter is coming," said a teary-eyed Sister Pierre Marie Almand, a volunteer with the Haitian Refugee Center Inc. "When they are all out, we will have a big party."
Minutes later, the second refugee to be released after 11 months' detention, Raoul Felix, left with his sister, Olga Felix, who owns a clothing store in Miami's Little Haiti.
The first refugees' exit yesterday was prompted by a court-appointed mediator who scolded government attorneys Thursday into agreeing to release Haitians who have voluntary agencies and sponsors waiting to resettle them under conditions outlined by U.S. District Court Judge Eugene P. Spellman.
Three weeks ago Spellman ordered the release of the Haitians, some of whom have been detained 13 months, because the government had violated its immigration procedures by instituting a plan to incarcerate the Haitians without public notice.
Tuesday a federal appeals court denied the government's request to block the release.
Tensions inside Krome have been mounting as the release date has been delayed.
Francois left the camp with two representatives of the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishops Fund, and stopped for a soft drink at the first store on the road to Miami.
He will be reunited tonight with a cousin who apparently was not aware that Francois' release would occur today, the priests said. Francois is awaiting the release of a woman with whom he has lived, who is housed with Haitian women in a Miami Beach hotel as part of the detention program.
Speaking to reporters at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Little Haiti, Francois said he fled Haiti after the police, the Tonton Macoutes, threatened him because he had asked that his daughter continue her schooling rather than become a maid for one of the policemen.
He left his wife and children in Haiti, and has had no contact with them. The Rev. Robert Land said Francois was chosen for resettlement because his political situation could make him more likely to gain asylum in the United States, and also because of his age, his length of stay at Krome and the presence of his woman associate here.
The conditions Spellman imposed require that the refugees report weekly to a third party appointed by the court and appear at hearings to determine whether they can stay in the United States legally.
About two hours after his release, Raoul Felix arrived at his sister's store to relatives' hugs and kisses.
"Tonight he's going to eat, eat and shower," said his sister. "Then I'm going to counsel him. I'm going to tell him to keep his head, to go to school, to learn English and after that to try to do something on his own."