It was the mundane pleasures that Patrick Julney missed the most: a cold glass of water out of the refrigerator; a warm handshake with a friend on the street; the unique comfort of a familiar bed; a plate of chicken and waffles.
Instead, he faced a sordid reality: In his cell at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Julney slept sitting upright on a bucket. With roughly 40 men packed into the small space, he had no room to lie down. The men shared one toilet that lacked proper plumbing. Some of them would defecate into plastic bags and throw them out the window, right into the yard. The place reeked of sewage and human refuse and crawled with rats and bugs. The drinking water was filthy and made Julney sick. His body broke out with bumps and rashes, and his feet swelled up because of an untreated injury. The prison offered only a measly breakfast—anything else had to be bought from the commissary—so Julney kept on losing weight. It was almost inevitable, then, that as cholera cases started to surge across Haiti at the start of October, the national penitentiary became ground zero for the disease. With a capacity of 800 people, the penitentiary holds closer to 4,000—90 percent of whom are in pretrial detention. They were all sitting ducks, unable to protect themselves against the deadly disease tearing through the country. Julney could only watch as prison guards carried out the bodies of people who had died—including another US deportee, Roody Fogg. Julney tried to calm himself, but as sickness closed in around him, he felt like he was losing his mind.
On June 7, Julney was deported to Haiti despite a pending motion to reopen his immigration case and a review petition in the Third Circuit. Shortly after he landed in Port-au-Prince, the scenario he had feared—and warned US officials about—came true. Julney was taken by Haitian police to a jail where he had no immediate access to food, water, or the small supply of prescription medicine that the US government had sent with him. Then, on June 28, he was transferred to the National Penitentiary. In the months since, Julney has counted between 20 and 30 other US deportees inside, most of whom—like him—have not been formally charged with a crime in Haiti.
On some days, their cell had no electricity and felt like an oven. Everyone was stuffed shoulder to shoulder, body to body—“marinating,” Julney told me over the phone from his cell. He had trouble sleeping, and when he was able to fall asleep, he would find himself not wanting to wake up.
“We’re not animals, man. We have made mistakes—some are worse than others—but at the end of the day, we’re not animals,” Julney said. “I just want the opportunity to feel like a human again.”
“A triple sentence”
Julney’s family moved to the United States in 1988, when he was 4. His parents were murdered in Haiti roughly a decade apart when he was still young, so an aunt in New Jersey took him in. In high school, Julney, a football player, met Laura McMaster, a cheerleader at a nearby school. They dated and drifted apart a few times but settled down together after graduating from high school. During their courtship, they discussed their hopes for the future: working, owning a home, starting a family, sharing a life.
In 2005, Julney received his green card, and for a while the young couple’s plans continued on track. Then, in 2010, Julney was sentenced to prison for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and on charges related to a robbery. In the years after, he tried to get his guilty plea for the latter vacated in court, maintaining that he had not been involved in the incident.
In prison, though, Julney dedicated himself to learning. He was given a position as the counselor’s assistant after doing well in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. He completed various certifications, including ones for workplace and forklift safety. He prepared himself for a life on the outside. “I didn’t waste my experience in prison—I have plenty of skills to put out there,” he said. “But then [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] snatched me up.”
On his release from prison in 2019, Julney received a Notice to Appear (NTA)—a charging document for removal proceedings in immigration court—and was transferred to ICE custody. His family was blindsided. “We would take a couple of steps forward and then just get punched in the face—that’s kind of what it felt like,” McMaster said. “We were just going in circles.”
Julney had arrived at the tail end of what advocates call the “prison-to-deportation pipeline,” which funnels immigrants who interact with the criminal justice system into removal proceedings. The number of immigrants the government has sought to remove on criminal grounds each year has decreased in the past decade. Still, at least half the people who were deported between 2003 and 2020 had at least one conviction on record, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Because of the increased intertwining of immigration and criminal law since the 1980s, a broad range of offenses—including even traffic violations—can make someone a target for deportation. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, Black immigrants make up only 7 percent of the immigrant population, and yet they represent 20 percent of those facing deportation on criminal grounds. It makes sense: Black people are more likely than whites to be stopped by police and to be sentenced for crimes (including ones they didn’t commit), and they are likely to get harsher punishments for the same crimes. A saga that begins with a traffic ticket can end with deportation for Black immigrants in many parts of the country.
But Julney kept fighting. He got quite far into the trial and appeals process in immigration court without a lawyer—a feat in and of itself. (Detained immigrants without lawyers are 10 times more likely to get a negative outcome in their immigration cases and seven times more likely to be remain detained, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.)
Meanwhile, during his detention at the Bergen County Jail, Julney tried to make a good impression. He signed up for the detainee work program and earned praise. In March 2020, one ICE agent described Julney as an “outstanding kitchen worker” who was “dependable, on time, and clean” in a handwritten evaluation. Two months later, another officer wrote that Julney had “a positive perspective for life and exemplary work ethics.”
Good behavior did not earn good treatment, however. During his time at Bergen County Jail, Julney filed complaints of civil rights violations (for a use-of-force incident) and religious discrimination (for not having his meals accommodated during the Ramadan fasts). He was among multiple detainees at the facility who filed complaints of mistreatment with the Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
In 2021, Julney and McMaster were married by a Muslim cleric. A month later, Julney got a decision from the immigration court appeals board affirming a previous deportation order. He filed another appeal, this time in the Third Circuit. With the help of a new lawyer, Eleni Bakst, who is a managing attorney of the detained adult program at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition, Julney was able to temporarily halt his removal. Bakst also filed a motion to reopen his immigration case because of a new development in his circumstances: His uncle in Haiti had recently been kidnapped and tortured. His loved ones rallied together, compiling news articles on the worsening conditions in Haiti and the past treatment of Haitian deportees—evidence that Julney would not be safe if he were deported. But on June 7, he was flown to Haiti and imprisoned again, this time in the worst conditions he had ever experienced.
“Bring me back to ICE. I’d take that 100 times over,” Julney told me. “This is a triple sentence—a triple sentence of death.”
“This is a black hole for me,” Julney said. After living nearly his whole life in the United States, he has little reason to call Haiti home. “My heart is not here—my heart is in the States, my mind is in the States, my soul is in the States. I don’t know this country, and I’m not trying to.”
“Differential treatment of Haitians”
In September of 2021, thousands of Haitian migrants made their way to the United States. Those coming directly from Haiti were fleeing the violence, poverty, and food insecurity that had intensified after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated earlier that year. Others had decided to leave countries like Chile and Brazil, where they faced immense xenophobia and racism. Many didn’t make it, dying off the Florida coast when their boats capsized or in Mexican border towns after being turned back by the US Border Patrol under Title 42— a Trump-era policy that the Biden administration has kept in place. Title 42 was rolled out as a public health policy in 2020; it allows border agents to “expel”—in government parlance—many migrants without ever letting them make their case for humanitarian protection, as US law typically allows. Neither Trump nor Biden officials provided any evidence that the policy was effective or explained why it was still in place after other border closures had been lifted.
After long, dangerous journeys to the US-Mexico border, many Haitians waiting to request asylum set up camp around the Del Rio bridge in conditions the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called “deplorable.” In response, the Department of Homeland Security “surged” agents to take “control of the area.” Soon photos emerged of Border Patrol officers on horseback, appearing to pursue Haitian migrants, whips coiled to strike. The incident prompted a class-action lawsuit, and DHS officials promised an investigation.
The striking photos from Del Rio evoked scenes from antebellum America of overseers on horseback at Southern plantations. They sparked discussions about the journeys that Black migrants—and Haitians in particular—need to take to reach the United States and how they’ve always received harsh treatment upon arrival.
A perception that Haitians are more threatening goes back to the 18th century, according to Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, a professor of history at California State University, San Marcos. The Haitian Revolution was the first in the Americas that overthrew the slave-owning class. That successful revolution, Sepinwall notes, created a fear of Black Haitians among white Americans.
“Haiti came to be identified with Black freedom, and throughout the 19th century there were proposals in the US to conquer Haiti and ‘reimpose order’ on Black people there, who were seen as threatening because they were unwilling to be dominated by whites,” Sepinwall said. Long after independence, the French descendants of slave owners in Haiti continued to siphon funds. Then, at Wall Street’s solicitation, the United States occupied Haiti in 1915, controlling its fortunes until 1947—13 years after the last US troops left the island. When former president Donald Trump told Fox News in October 2021 that Haitians who were coming to the US “probably have AIDS” and that allowing them in was “a death wish,” he was drawing from a centuries-old racist trope—and exhibiting a willful blindness toward the US contribution to Haiti’s descent into poverty and instability. This rhetoric continues to have a bearing on real policy.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the United States greeted Haitians escaping their country’s US-backed dictatorships with an expansion of the US immigrant detention system. At the time, the government painted Haitians as economic migrants, ineligible for asylum, but it released and quickly naturalized Cubans fleeing their own country. The historian and US Coast Guard veteran Ryan Fontanilla has said that the Coast Guard’s techniques for blocking Haitian asylum seekers have roots in the tactics used during the slave trade. The Clinton administration expanded the range of criminal offenses for which migrants could be deported—which would come to affect even Haitians who had obtained legal status. Between 1991 and 1993, the United States also operated a camp for HIV-positive migrants from Haiti at Guantánamo Bay—the first and only detention center of its kind.
Today, the rates of Haitians being granted asylum continue to be the lowest of any nationality. Haitians (and other Black immigrants) have repeatedly reported being shackled and restrained while being transported. And according to an analysis of recent removals by the organization Washington Office on Latin America in May 2022, ”no other country whose citizens are expelled by air comes close to Haiti” in terms of the numbers. NBC News recently reported that the Biden administration is now considering sending Haitian migrants coming to the US-Mexico border to a third country or to its decades-old migrant holding facility in Guantánamo Bay.
“A fight to get the bare minimum”
This year, US Customs and Border Protection released a 511-page investigation into what happened in Del Rio in 2021. The agency’s reviewers concluded that some Border Patrol agents had used “unnecessary force” on, and made denigrating comments against, Haitian migrants—but that they did not use whips on them. Agency officials framed the incident as a result of “inappropriate” actions by individual agents and not as a symptom of systemic discrimination.
Advocacy groups were angry, noting that CBP did not interview any migrants involved in this incident—even though the 11 Haitian plaintiffs named in the lawsuit the groups filed last year were made available for interviews. “They chose not to include the voices and the realities of the people who are impacted,” Guerline Jozef, the president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, said in a July press call. “As a matter of fact, they erased them and their voices by expelling and deporting them.”
According to internal documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, the US authorities knew last year that deported Haitians may face harm upon return, but they nevertheless ramped up deportations and Title 42 expulsions throughout the year. Witness at the Border, a group that tracks deportation flights, found that 277 flights to Haiti with an estimated 27,000 people—including children—have taken off since Biden was inaugurated. Of these, around 240 left between September 19, 2021, and August 31, 2022. Since September 2021, approximately 15,000 Haitians have been expelled to Mexico or back to Haiti from the US border under Title 42.
The administration acknowledged that conditions in Haiti were worsening and took a handful of steps to address the displacement of Haitians. Among them was the redesignation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians already here due to “serious security concerns, social unrest, an increase in human rights abuses, crippling poverty, and a lack of basic resources.” These victories were not easily won; advocates routinely highlight the stark contrast between their difficulty in getting the government to protect Black and brown migrants and the ease with which they have gotten relief measures for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. “When it comes to Black migrants and people of color in general, we have to prove our humanity—we have to prove that we deserve safety, that we deserve protection,” Jozef told me in a follow-up call. “It is never willingly done—it is a fight to get the bare minimum.”
Temporary Protected Status, family parole, and other protections provided by the government do not, of course, help fresh arrivals or those who have already been deported. Jozef is in touch with many Haitians who were sent back—including all the plaintiffs in the Del Rio bridge lawsuit—and now face conditions worse than the ones they fled months or years ago. One couple, whose child was born on the US-Mexico border, have gone into hiding, Jozef said, fearing they will be targeted for their political ties. Another deportee left Haiti once again, retraced the dangerous journey back to the United States, and was ultimately able to pursue an asylum claim after obtaining a narrow exemption to Title 42.
“there are plenty of people still inside”
Haiti has a long-standing practice of imprisoning deportees with US criminal records, said Michelle Karshan, the founder of Alternative Chance, a group that advocates and organizes services for such deportees. After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the cholera epidemic that followed, the United States granted Temporary Protected Status to some Haitians, but among those who didn’t qualify were people with criminal records. Of the 27 men deported to Haiti in January 2011, all were immediately jailed. Among them was Wildrick Guerrier, who became ill and died 10 days later of “cholera-like symptoms,” according to a 2015 report by lawyers and advocates. The US halted deportations for about two months after that, but the reprieve was short-lived: Deportations started back up again later that spring.
In 2012, US officials noted a decline in the Haitian detentions, although Haitian officials told advocates two years later that they were still jailing some deportees upon arrival. In the last eight or so months, however, Haiti appears to have resumed the widespread detention of deportees, Karshan said. Haitian leaders use deportees from America as “scapegoats” to blame for the country’s ongoing crime and violence, she added. Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, for instance, called deportees from the US “expert gangsters” in an interview with a South Florida radio station last year.
“You tell us you don’t want us to be around something, but you stuff us in a prison with all the big dogs—the heads of these gangs?” Julney told me when I asked him his thoughts on this narrative. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Being in prison in Haiti right now means being caught in the crossfire of gang violence inside and outside the prison walls; and it entails endangering distant family and acquaintances by asking them to wade through gunfire and protests to drop off food or medication. At its worst, it can mean death by starvation or illness as the malnutrition crisis in Haitian prisons grows more dire. At best, it means shelling out cash in exchange for basic rights, and then more cash for pursuing the few available pathways to get back to America.
The costs for Julney, his family, and advocates have added up: $50 to $100 a day to procure food and clean water while he remains in jail; $5,000 to get a Haitian lawyer to file a habeas petition seeking his release; time and labor for his lawyer to continue to seek remedies in US courts, such as a motion to reopen his case so that if he gets a favorable decision, he may be able to return to the United States on parole. Advocates have also filed a request for an emergency hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in which they have highlighted Julney’s predicament. They have lobbied the Congressional Haitian Caucus and US consular offices for a moratorium on deportations to Haiti—and the safe return of deportees.
There is also an unquantifiable emotional toll. Julney’s wife said she couldn’t sleep on the days that he hadn’t called her—such as when his phone battery died after a days-long power outage. On the bad days, McMaster said, what kept her going were the memories of better ones together: when she and Julney used to skip class, read books in the park, and ride around in their car. “Even the simplest of things—like an argument face-to-face—those are the things I miss the most, because I don’t know if I’ll experience that again with him,” she added. “And I don’t plan on experiencing them with anybody else.”
On October 24, Julney’s attorney, Bakst, called me, giddy with emotion. Julney’s cellmates had told her over WhatsApp that he had been taken from the cell by police. Two other cellmates had recently been released without explanation, so maybe Julney had too. Then Julney himself had called her and confirmed the good news: “I’m out,” he said. The first thing he wanted to do was buy clean clothes and underwear, he told her before he lost the phone signal. The next day, once he was safe with his extended family, he sent a photo of himself smiling, three-quarters of a pizza pie before him.
Bakst wasn’t sure why Julney had been released, but she figured it was a combination of factors: US news reports of the cholera outbreak and the instability in Haiti, and back-channel pressure from US lawmakers and advocates. “But there are plenty of people still inside,” she said.
And for those who remain stuck in the prison-to-deportation pipeline, uncertainties abound. It’s a “black hole” they may never be pulled out of.