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In one of its last acts, Trump administration tried to deport man to Haiti who has never been there

For the second time in his stateless life, Paul Pierrilus faced the possibility this week of being deported to a country he has never known, never lived in and that has never recognized him.

The 40-year-old New York man was minutes away from boarding one of the last deportation flights of the Trump administration before a relentless international effort by his family, attorney and a fortuitous connection to a freshman U.S. congressman helped him evade removal.

Immigration attorneys and advocates say chartered deportation flights continued uninterrupted until the last hours of Donald Trump’s presidency, sending dozens of immigrants, including people such as Pierrilus, to nations they scarcely know or fled decades earlier.

Advocates who track such flights estimate more than 1,000 deportation flights took place last year.

President Biden has committed to halting deportations during the first 100 days of his administration, scaling back arrests and proposing an ambitious revision of the nation’s immigration laws to include a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants. The proposed legislation will need support from Republicans, but some have already voiced their opposition.

In the years since the last major effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, in 2013, immigration attorneys and advocates have sought the help of Capitol Hill lawmakers when all other legal and procedural options for their clients have been exhausted.

Pierrilus found himself in such a situation. The financial consultant was born in the French territory of St. Martin to Haitian parents and immigrated to the United States as a child. But neither Haiti nor the French government automatically confer citizenship to children born outside its borders.

So Pierrilus was stuck in limbo, a citizen of nowhere and with no country willing to give him legal status. Precise data is elusive, but the Center for Migration Studies of New York estimates about 218,000 people in the United States are stateless or at risk of being so.

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Katrina Bleckley, staff attorney with the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said a drug offense put Pierrilus on the radar of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE tried to deport Pierrilus’s brother, Daniel Pierrilus, who is in an identical immigration situation. But when the brother arrived in Port-au-Prince in 2006, Haitian officials sent him back, family said.

ICE officials said Pierrilus entered the United States in 1985 and overstayed his visitor visa. An immigration judge ordered he be removed following a 2003 conviction for selling drugs. Pierrilus asked for his case to be reopened in 2005 and 2008 and lost an appeal.

“Pierrilus … is an illegally present citizen of the Haiti,” ICE said in a statement, adding that the agency had travel documents for him but declined to provide evidence.

B​ut Pierrilus could not be deported to Haiti because he isn’t a citizen — a fact confirmed by a tweet from the Haitian ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond. The ambassador said Thursday that his government has no record that any consulate or the embassy had ever provided travel documents to ICE for Pierrilus. They had, in fact, turned the agency down twice in recent years.

For nearly two decades, Pierrilus checked in routinely with federal immigration officials while under an order of supervision that allowed him to live and work in the United States, his attorney said.

During his Jan. 11 appointment, Pierrilus was detained and within a few days was in a removal staging facility in Alexandria, La., shackled and awaiting deportation on the eve of a new presidency.

“My mother was devastated and distraught,” said his sister Neomie Pierrilus, who reached out to a cousin who went to high school with their new congressman, Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), to see whether they could help. “I am a fighter, and I wasn’t going to give up on my family.”

The cousin came through with a phone number for Jones. Bleckley left a desperate voice mail and sent a text to Jones, unsure whether it would make a difference. Jones, meanwhile, was on a treadmill when he saw the notification.

“There was nothing to do except go to Congress,” said Bleckley, who was monitoring an online tracker to see whether Pierrilus’s flight had taken off. “Minutes after the text, I got a call back. I’ve never had a turnaround like that.”

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Jones’s staff worked the phones all night with Bleckley, demanding ICE send them a copy of valid Haitian travel documents for her client. They received nothing. Bleckley finally heard Pierrilus’s voice on the phone about 9 a.m. Tuesday, relieved that the flight had left without him. He is expected to return home this week.

“We have an immigration system where attorneys, advocacy organizations and members of Congress must work on a case-by-case basis to work miracles in order to obtain justice for clients and constituents,” said Jones, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which will consider Biden’s proposed immigration legislation. “That is no way to run an immigration system.”

Edmond, the Haitian ambassador, tweeted that his government also intervened. They spoke to Pierrilus’ parents to confirm their story with Haitian government records. The family no longer had any ties to the country or relatives and there was no record of Pierrilus’ nationality. Edmond, just as his predecessor had done, told ICE that they would not issue travel documents for him.

Edmond said they told ICE that this kind of “illegal deportation” would violate the two countries’ binational agreement and Pierrilus’ human rights.

“Yet they decided to try to send him to Haiti anyway without documents,” Edmond said in an interview. “We found the lack of humanity in the process disturbing. We asked ourselves, how many others were deported this way?”

Pierrilus is still in Louisiana. It’s unclear what happens next.

“I pray to a God who answers prayers,” Neomie Pierrilus said. “This was a divine intervention.”