Riding in a brand-new sports car with Eugene, the lawyer for the Haitian Refugee Office, I rest my arm on the open window to feel the hot air whip past. Eugene’s dark brown face is impassive. He wears an immaculately tailored suit and sunglasses. I feel decidedly unprofessional in my cotton skirt and bare legs, but you couldn’t pay me to think about nylons in this heat. I move my damp thighs apart gingerly.
We turn off the main highway onto the road that leads to Krome, a holding tank for refugees. The noise of Miami traffic fades away behind us as we drive through acres of saw-toothed swamp grass. Above, huge birds wheel and cry, flapping their dark wings.
“It’s unconstitutional to detain people indefinitely,” Eugene says, breaking a long silence. He’s in perfect control behind the wheel in his perfect suit, barely sweating. He has more than seven hundred cases on file at the office, everything from people being kicked out of their homes to people being kicked out of the country. I don’t know him very well and feel a little intimidated. He’s always rushing in and out of the office with a briefcase under his arm, and I’ve often heard him shout and swear at the secretary because she didn’t alphabetize correctly. I’m afraid I’ll do something wrong that will make him lose his temper, so I’m grateful for his explanations.
“Krome was set up on an abandoned missile base in the middle of a swamp. It’s big enough to hold about a thousand people, but they’ve got to have twice that many there now. All kinds of human rights violations. Not enough toilets, not enough water. These people haven’t done anything, but they’re being treated worse than convicted criminals. They even put hormones in the food to keep the men from rioting. It’s a concentration camp. You’ll see,” he promises me.
The first time I’d heard that comparison was when Marc Paul, my boss, said it during a staff meeting. Did he know what he was saying, I’d thought, how loaded with history those words are? I’d looked at him. He’d looked straight back. He knew. And he meant them. He’d talked of finding an elderly Jewish woman who had survived the Holocaust, and asking her to compare it to Krome on TV.
“There are plenty of old Jews on Miami Beach,” he’d said. “Some of them must be concentration camp survivors. Can you find one?” Again, he was looking at me. Everyone was.
“I don’t know,” I’d muttered, my cheeks reddening, conscious of being the only Jew in the office. I envisioned a feisty old lady wearing tennis shoes, with numbers tattooed on her tanned and wrinkled forearm. Would she be offended to be asked to turn her particular and irreplaceable losses into a political pitch for the cameras? Or would she be a lifelong fighter against fascism, a survivor who would leap at the chance to speak out against injustice wherever people were being abused?
The plan to find her fell through, though. I never had time even to go looking, with the waiting room full of hungry people out of work, pregnant women with no place to live. I had imagined myself going to synagogues, retirement homes, looking for candidates, but I spent eight or nine hours a day translating for refugees, filling out welfare forms and police reports, registering children for school, and three nights a week I taught English. Somehow the project fell through the cracks, but the old woman remained a powerful figure in my imagination, even though I wasn’t sure what to make of her.
The first thing I see at Krome is a group of men in red overalls picking up rocks in a dusty field. They look like extras in an old chain-gang movie. I squint under the unshaded glare of the sun. Yes, they are picking up rocks, and tossing them into a big dumpster.
“They get paid a dollar a week to do that,” Eugene tells me. “Phone-call money.”
We stop at the guard shack, and it takes fifteen minutes for the bored guard to radio his superior, who radios his superior, who finally gets clearance for us to drive into the compound.
We park the car in paint-blistering sun. There is no awning, no tree, no shade anywhere. The sun is like an interrogation light, relentless. If it could speak, it would say, No getting out of this place.
I am here to interpret for Eugene when he interviews two people filing for political asylum. Creole has been growing in me these past few months, branching out like an underwater plant, so that I dream now in two languages. I’ve practiced a lot, of course, with co-workers and clients and whoever will listen, but the language seems to have taken on a life of its own in me. It lives in my throat, my nose, my dreams, my blood. It feels like it was there before I learned it, waiting for me to hear these sounds so it could reawaken.
We walk across fifty yards of dried mud to an air-conditioned building, where we are ushered into a room with a table, chairs, and little surveillance cameras hung in the corners. Two young Haitian women come hesitantly into the room, accompanied by a female guard. Slender and timid as sparrows, the women wear church-donated clothing that swims on their small bodies, and their hair is tied up country-style in kerchiefs.
Their eyes widen in surprise when I greet them with “Bonswa,” but they politely stifle their amusement at my funny accent.
“Bonswa,” they reply.
Eugene says, “Hi.” Their handshakes are dry and light, a brush of bird bones. My own hand feels clammy and damp. I wipe it on my skirt as we sit down.
Eugene has pulled out a thick questionnaire and a yellow legal pad. He stretches out his long American legs and says, “Let’s get started.”
We take down their names: Kettlie Lormeus and Micheline Toussaint. They are half sisters, twenty and eighteen years old.
“Why’d they come here?” Eugene asks. I translate.
Micheline looks helplessly to her older sister for the answers. Kettlie is more assured, with a lovely regal bearing that her mismatched clothing only accentuates. A princess in disguise. Her nails are painted with chipped red polish. Where, I wonder, did she get nail polish in a place like this?
“It is because of the Ton Ton Macoutes that we left,” Kettlie is saying softly, so softly I have to lean toward her to hear. “Our cousin . . .” She glances at her sister and falls silent.
“Their cousin?” Eugene urges.
Micheline says slowly, “Our family still lives there.”
“Tell her we can’t help her unless she tells us everything,” Eugene insists. He leans forward to make the point, even though they don’t understand and draw back, frightened. I try to soften his words.
“The information is essential. For your immigration hearing. You can believe him. Us.” Their faces are polite, wary, young.
Then Kettlie speaks. “It was our uncle. He had a store. And every time the Ton Ton Macoutes came, they asked him for money. And he gave it to them. So then they would leave him alone.” She hesitates, drumming her chipped nails on the table. “But last summer they asked for too much. We do not have so much money! He gave them the same as always. Later that night they came and burned his store down.”
“What about the cousin?” Eugene prompts, writing.
“And your cousin?” I ask.
“Our cousin . . .” Kettlie twists her fingers. Micheline moves her chair closer to her sister. “He was . . . angry. You know? So he said some things. He talked too much. They found him. They beat him and beat him until he couldn’t see. They tied a rope around his hands and led him through town behind a donkey. They were still beating him. And his sister ran out of the house after them.”
“She is your cousin, too?” Eugene interrupts.
“Yes,” Kettlie whispers, looking down at her hands folded in her lap. She and Micheline are silent.
“Well?” he asks.
“Our cousin — they took her, too. They were laughing. They took her into the woods and raped her. All of them. And my cousin, they beat him and beat him until he fell down dead. My uncle, their father, he became crazy. He went to live in my parents’ house. Because he had no more store, no family, nothing.” She stops, trembling. How do I translate all that?
“My parents became very afraid. The Ton Ton Macoutes, when they don’t like you, it is your whole family who is in danger. Every day my parents thought about what happened to my cousins, and they were afraid for us. So they sold some land. My mother sold her earrings. Gold earrings from her mother.” She pauses, her sister wide-eyed at her shoulder.
“OK,” Eugene says, tapping his pencil on the pad. “Ask them if they have any affiliation with any political groups.” They stare blankly as I translate the question.
Eugene persists. “Do you have reason to fear persecution in your country due to affiliation with any ethnic, religious, social, or political groups?” I stare at him disbelievingly, and he says to me, “Don’t look at me that way. I didn’t make these questions up.”
I translate into their frightened faces. Silence.
Eugene sighs. “OK, let’s go back to this story about the Ton Ton Macoutes who burned down your uncle’s store and killed your cousin. Any evidence to support that? Witnesses?”
Kettlie leans forward and fixes her eyes on us intently. “We can’t give you names of witnesses,” she says. “Our family is still there. But we have a letter. From my brother. He is in high school.” She takes a fake-alligator purse out of her waistband and pulls from it a dogeared letter on tissue-thin paper, folded and refolded a thousand times. I scoot around next to her and try to read the ornately formal French over her shoulder.
My dearest sisters, our family has suffered a tragedy, a tragedy which has separated you from our eyes, but not from our hearts. Our father is well. Our mother is well also, but she cries because thoughts of her daughters trouble her mind. My sisters, our sad family is hungry. We hunger for news of you and also for food, since we have lost our little business as well as our land. Send word, in whatever way you can, that you are well. And for the love of God and our parents, send money too.
“You see?” Kettlie asks me. I nod.
“Goddamnit,” Eugene fumes. “This is why we never get anywhere with these cases. Hundreds of stories like this, and we never get a scrap of real physical evidence, not even a newspaper clipping —”
“But Eugene, what do you expect them to do? They don’t want to put their family in danger. And how does anyone expect them to carry evidence with them when they barely got out with the clothes on their backs?”
“Good point. Ever tried to explain it to a judge?”
While we are hissing at each other, Kettlie and Micheline sit quietly.
“OK,” Eugene says, glancing at his watch. “Recess over.” He looks at the sisters. “Now, if you could tell me how you got here.”
They explain that their parents paid a man with a boat to take them to the United States. A day after they had lost sight of Haiti, the boat was becalmed in the middle of the ocean. Eventually, they ran out of food and water. The captain made them drink their own urine. A baby died, and its body was tossed overboard. Its mother leaped in after it. The sisters prayed, thinking of home, of how many candles their own mother was lighting for them in church.
On the tenth day, a gentle current washed them onto Miami Beach, where they were met by men in uniforms. An old man who was vomiting was taken to the hospital, but the rest of them were loaded on a bus and brought to this prison.
“That was the coast guard,” Eugene comments, doodling on his pad. He shifts his legs under the table. “OK, ask them if they set foot on the beach before the men in uniforms spoke to them.”
“It’s important. If they actually walked around on American soil even for a half-hour as free women, then we can say that they legally effected an entry into this country. If not, they’re metaphorically still in the waiting room, and it’s that much harder.”
“That makes no sense.”
“You’ve been here how long and you’re still expecting things to make sense?”
So the questions continue — painstaking, nit-picking questions, which for the most part they either don’t understand or won’t answer. But after four hours, the questionnaire is more or less completed, and we say goodbye.
At the guard desk I ask where a restroom is, and Eugene waits while I go in and wash my face. The cool water feels good, but my eyes look tired in the mirror. I dry my face hurriedly and walk back out into the hall.
As we leave the compound, we pass crowds of people behind fences. Eugene points out to me that men and women are segregated by not one but two barbed-wire fences. Couples meet each other there, trading news of family members, sometimes throwing a precious candy bar over the fence.
Driving back, Eugene is silent for several minutes. Then he says, “No way are those girls going to get political asylum with a case like that.” He pauses. “Not that it matters.”
“How can you say that?”
“Look, out of several hundred thousand Haitian refugees in this country, do you know how many have received political asylum?”
“I’ve never heard of any.”
“Well, there have been twelve. Twelve people. The time for ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ is over.”
“But how can you say it doesn’t matter about Kettlie and Micheline?”
“Because they’re getting out no matter what we do. Kettlie’s pregnant. The guard told me on the way out.”
“What? But how? They’ve been at Krome four months!”
Eugene is sweating, his designer glasses slipping down his nose. “I don’t know how she did it. You’re a woman, you figure it out. But word around here is that Immigration is paroling all pregnant women on humanitarian grounds.”
“Oh.” I adjust my damp skirt beneath my legs, still not understanding but unwilling to ask him again. I feel sad, tired, empty, ashamed. Ashamed of this beautiful, blighted country where I was born, grew up eating three meals a day, went to school, went to work, and now struggle to keep my sanity. Ashamed of the white skin I never asked for. Ashamed of the privilege of not having had to think about these things until now.
We stop at a red light, and Eugene looks me in the eye for what seems like the first time today.
“You want to know how they do it? These people are not stupid. Maybe they can’t read, but they know the score. Everyone at Krome knows the only people getting out now are pregnant. For a while there was a pretty good market going, with pregnant women selling their urine to others so they could pass the rabbit test. They’d go into the bathroom with little plastic bags taped up high on their thighs. Immigration went wild when they found out. They started a new policy of having a female guard go to the bathroom with them and watch them pee. You know what the refugees started doing then? Men hand their semen to women through the fence. They try to impregnate themselves that way.”
I think of Kettlie, her elegance. The way she’d managed to find nail polish in that place and the little fake-alligator purse. “I don’t believe it.”
“Well, Kettlie either did that or she found a cooperative guard. That wouldn’t be so hard. She’s pretty enough.” Behind his designer glasses, Eugene’s eyes are shiny and red-rimmed. “Don’t you know what they think about black people? They think we’re animals! Put us in a zoo and watch us jump for peanuts. Shit!”
He shifts gears violently, and we lurch forward into traffic.