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46 Immigrants Caught in Upscale Florida Town

The group, all but two Haitian, scattered from a 45-foot cabin cruiser. A resident found four women `huddled together ... so scared.'

April 08, 2006|Brian Haas, Macollvie Jean Francois and Tal Abbady | South Florida Sun-Sentinel

HILLSBORO BEACH, Fla. — U.S. immigration officials apprehended 46 illegal immigrants Friday after the group landed on the beaches of this upscale town in a 45-foot cabin cruiser, then hid among vacation rentals, luxury condominiums and mansions before being detained.

In custody were 29 men, 15 women, a boy and a girl.

All were Haitian except a Cuban man and a Jamaican man, said Border Patrol spokesman Steve McDonald.

"I'd rather spend 50 years in prison than be sent back to Haiti," said one detainee, Donald Joseph, 32.

"Haiti has nothing."

Most of the immigrants were being processed for return to their countries, but the Cuban probably will be allowed to stay in the United States, McDonald said.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who make it to U.S. soil typically qualify for permanent residency a year later.

Investigators were trying to find the operator of the beached 45-foot Swordfish cabin cruiser, which lacked any identifying information.

A Hillsboro Beach police officer first spotted two Haitians walking along Highway A1A around 6:30 a.m., Police Chief John Ballard said.

After they told the officer how they arrived in town, authorities began searching for the others.

Residents awoke to helicopters buzzing overhead. Carole O'Neill walked outside her home and saw four women crouched near some bushes.

"I felt so sorry for them," O'Neill said.

"They were huddled together; they were so scared."

O'Neill said the women fled when a maintenance man walked by.

The arrivals brought to 80 the number of Haitians the Border Patrol has detained in South Florida for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 and runs through the end of September.

With six months to go, that's well above the pace set in the previous period, when authorities detained 119 Haitians.

McDonald said packing so many people on a 45-foot boat was dangerous.

But with smuggling fees of $1,500 to $3,000 per person, the business is lucrative.

Some of the boat's passengers cited political turmoil for leaving Haiti, others unemployment and other economic problems. Several of the Haitians said they had family members in South Florida and asked journalists to contact their relatives.

Elcia Philemar of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said she was shocked to hear that her 15-year-old son, Henri-Claude "Keke" Louis-Jean, was on the boat. Philemar said that when she last spoke with relatives in Cap Haitien, the city where the boy lived with his grandmother, they told her he had disappeared.

Philemar said her son might have felt threatened because his father, a former Haitian military officer, was beaten and shot recently.

"For these young men, life there is really hard," she said.

Haitians with a credible fear of persecution if repatriated are sometimes allowed to request asylum, but attorneys say Haitians are rarely granted it.

That troubles Haitians who arrived in South Florida years ago.

Maintenance worker Abner Desinor, 60, who came to the scene of the arrests Friday, said he arrived on a beach from Haiti in 1978. Desinor said authorities let him go after three days. He became a U.S. citizen in 1996.

"I am a little sad about it. It could have been me," Desinor said of the detainees being returned to Haiti.

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