SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Paul Pierrilus was deported two years ago from the U.S. to Haiti where he has been trying to survive in a chaotic and violent country where he wasn’t born and had never lived.
Both his parents are Haitian but they emigrated to the French Caribbean territory of St. Martin where Pierrilus was born. The family did not apply for citizenship for him in either Haiti or St. Martin and later moved to the U.S. when he was 5. He grew up in New York speaking English.
Deported — after a long delay — because of a drug conviction two decades ago, Pierrilus is now in Haiti where he does not speak Haitian Creole, has been unable to find work and has little savings left as he hopes for a way to leave the increasingly unstable country.
“You have to be mentally strong to deal with this type of stuff,” Pierrilus said. “A country where people get kidnapped every day. A country where people are killed. You have to be strong.”
The 42-year-old financial consultant spends most of his days locked inside a house reading self-help, business and marketing books in a neighborhood where gunshots often echo outside.
Lawyers for Pierrilus in the U.S. are still fighting his deportation order, leaving him in legal limbo as the Biden administration steps up deportations to Haiti despite pleas from activists that they be temporarily halted because of the Caribbean country’s deepening chaos.
His case has become emblematic of what some activists describe as the discrimination Haitian migrants face in the overburdened U.S. immigration system. More than 20,000 Haitians have been deported from the U.S. in the past year as thousands more continue to flee Haiti in risky boat crossings that sometimes end in mass drownings.
Cases like Pierrilus’ in which people are deported to a country where they have never lived are unusual, but they happen occasionally.
Jimmy Aldaoud, born of Iraqi parents at a refugee camp in Greece and whose family emigrated to the U.S. in 1979, was deported in 2019 to Iraq after amassing several felony convictions. Suffering health problems and not knowing the language in Iraq, he died a few months later in a case oft-cited by advocates.
Pierrilus’ parents took him to the United States so they could live a better life and he could receive a higher quality education.
When he was in his early 20s, he was convicted of selling crack cocaine. Because he was not a U.S. citizen, Pierrilus was transferred from criminal custody to immigration custody where he was deemed a Haitian national because of his parentage and ordered deported to Haiti.
Pierrilus managed to delay deportation with several legal challenges. Because he was deemed neither a danger to the community nor a flight risk, he was released, issued a work authorization and ordered to check with immigration authorities yearly.
He went on to become a financial planner.
Then, in February 2021, he was deported without warning, and his lawyers don’t know exactly why his situation changed.
Lawyers for the nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization in Washington have taken up his cause. “We demand that the Biden administration bring Paul home,” organization attorney Sarah Decker said.
French St. Martin does not automatically confer French citizenship to those born in its territory to foreign parents, and his family did not seek it. They also did not formally seek Haitian citizenship, which Pierrilus is entitled to.
Though he could obtain Haitian citizenship, his lawyers have argued that he is not currently a Haitian citizen, had never lived there and should not be deported to a county with such political instability.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a brief general statement to The Associated Press that each country has an obligation under international law to accept the return of its nationals who are not eligible to remain in the U.S. or any other country. An ICE spokeswoman said no further information about Pierrilus’ case could be provided, including what proof does the U.S. government have that he’s an alleged Haitian citizen and why 13 years passed before he was suddenly deported.
In 2005, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed an appeal by Pierrilus’ previous attorneys to halt his deportation, saying “it is not necessary for the respondent to be a citizen of Haiti for that country to be named as the country of removal.” Decker, his current attorney, disagrees with that finding.
Pierrilus said that while he was being deported he told immigration officers, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not from where you’re trying to send me.”
Overpowered and handcuffed, he said he stopped resisting. As he boarded the flight, he recalled that women were screaming and children wailing. Inside, he felt the same. Pierrilus did not know when and if he would see his family or friends again.
After being processed at the airport, someone lent Pierrilus a cell phone so he could call his parents. They gave him contacts for a family friend where he could temporarily stay. Since then, gang violence has forced him to bounce through two other homes.
Warring gangs have expanded their control of territory in the Haitian capital to an estimated 60% since the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, pillaging neighborhoods, raping and shooting civilians.
The U.N. warned in January that Haitians are suffering their worst humanitarian emergency in decades. More than 1,350 kidnappings were reported last year, more than double the previous year. Killings spiked by 35%, with more than 2,100 reported.
Pierrilus says he saw a man who was driving through his neighborhood get shot in the face as bullets shattered the windows and pock-marked the man’s car.
“Can you imagine that? This guy is swirling around trying to flee the area. I don’t know what happened to the guy,” he said.
As a result, he rarely goes out and relies on his faith for hope. He says he stopped going to church after he saw a livestreamed service in April 2021 in which gangs burst into the church and kidnapped a pastor and three congregants.
Pierrilus talks to his parents at least once a week, focusing on the progress of his case rather than on challenges in Haiti.
He hesitated to share his first impressions of his parents’ homeland upon landing in Haiti two years ago. “I had mixed feelings,” he said. “I wanted to see what it looked like on my time, not under these circumstances.”