Less than two weeks after his deportation to Haiti — a country he wasn’t born in and had never visited — was halted by immigration enforcement, Paul Pierrilus was sent there anyway, his lawyer said.
Pierrilus, 40, arrived in Port-au-Prince Tuesday morning aboard a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation charter flight from Louisiana with 63 other individuals expelled from the United States. He was distraught and in shock, said his lawyer, Nicole Phillips, who spoke with him hours later.
“They knew he was stateless. They knew he didn’t have a Haitian passport,” she said. “It’s our understanding that he did not have travel documents to return to Haiti and yet they deported him there anyway.”
A spokesperson with ICE did not respond to a Miami Herald inquiry about the flight before publication. Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, said he was inquiring into the matter. The country’s foreign minister, Claude Joseph, did not respond to a request for comment.
A financial consultant from New York, Pierrilus was born to Haitian parents in the French territory of St. Martin. He doesn’t speak Haitian-Creole fluently, advocates said, and he has no family in Haiti, where on Tuesday, he was staying with “a friend of a friend” after being transferred to the offices of the country’s judicial police, where he was taken to a tiny room, photographed and had his fingerprints taken, his lawyer said.
Phillips said he tried to explain his situation to four ICE agents, and at one point attempted to get back on the stairs of the plane.
“Four ICE agents wrestled with him to force him to get off the airplane to stay in the country,” she said. “He kept pleading over and over again, ‘Show me the travel document.’ And nobody did.”
Pierrilus landed in Haiti in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a deepening political crisis. A countrywide general strike in its second day Tuesday over a surge in kidnappings had shuttered schools and businesses, meaning he couldn’t go purchase a cellphone, or collect a wire transfer.
Streets with normally bumper-to-bumper traffic were devoid of cars and buses except for the occasional private vehicle and motorcycle taxi drivers.
“The United States government made a huge error by deporting a stateless person, in this case to Haiti. So they need to do everything they can to fix this problem,” Phillips said. “This is not a country that he should have ever been deported to.”
Pierrilus, who was detained when he went to an immigration check-in in Manhattan on Jan. 11, won a last-minute reprieve from deportation on Jan. 19, when he was removed from one of the last deportation flights under the Trump administration. A frenzied effort by immigration advocates, his sister, and New York Congressman Mondaire Jones, D-NY, helped him win the stay.
The next day, President Joe Biden was sworn in. All involved in Pierrilus’ case believed that he was safe — at least for the time being. Soon after entering the White House, Biden issued a 100-day moratorium on deportations of some undocumented immigrants.
Last Tuesday, a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the deportation suspension.
Phillips, legal director for the Haitian Bridge Alliance, an immigration advocacy organization, said the Texas court order does not mandate ICE to deport detainees. Nor does it tell them who specifically to deport, she said.
“It remains within ICE’s discretion whether or not to deport people,” Phillips said. “In their hastiness and desire to rid the United States of Black immigrants from Haiti, they are doing everything they can to deport as many Haitians as they can, and Paul was one of them.”
In addition to Tuesday’s flight, there was another flight to Haiti on Monday with 102 detainees, she said, and 1,800 more Haitians are in the pipeline to be return to their homeland in the next two weeks.
At 3am, my staff woke up to an urgent call. Suddenly, and in the dead of night, ICE was set to deport Rockland County’s beloved Paul Pierrilus to Haiti, a country where he has never been.
And there was nothing we could do to stop it.
— Rep. Mondaire Jones (@RepMondaire) February 2, 2021
Guerline Jozefa, director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said Pierrilus was awoken by an ICE agent at 1 a.m. Tuesday and told to get his belongings. When he asked where he was being taken, he was provided no answers. He also asked if they had travel documents for him, and again received no response.
In 2003, Pierrilus was convicted of selling drugs, and after serving his time, an immigration judge ordered him removed.
He argued that he could not be deported to Haiti because he wasn’t a citizen of the country. He also wasn’t a citizen of St. Martin, under French law. Both Haitian and French authorities had denied U.S. deportation requests.
Advocates say they still aren’t clear how Pierrilus, who has never been recognized by Haiti as a citizen, ended up there.
“How is it that the Haitian government agreed to receive a man that they have previously clearly stated is not a Haitian citizen?” asked Jozefa. “Isn’t the Haitian government supposed to receive people who are coming into the country; don’t they know who is coming into the country or is it carte blanche that they have given to whatever ICE wants?”
Phillips said they have not given up on getting Pierrilus back. In 2006 ICE tried to deport Pierrilus’s brother, Daniel Pierrilus, who also was in immigration trouble. When he arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haitian officials sent him back, the sister previously said.
Miami Herald reporter Monique O. Madan contributed to this report.