SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Paul Pierrilus was deported from the United States to Haiti two years ago, where he has been trying to survive in a chaotic and violent country where he was not born and has never lived.
His parents are both Haitian, but they immigrated to the French Caribbean region 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 United States when he was 5 years old. He grew up in New York and spoke English.
Deported – after a long delay – on a drug conviction two decades ago, Pierrilus is now in Haiti, where he speaks no Haitian Creole, has been unable to find work and has little savings as he hopes for a chance to cross the country leave unstable country.
“You have to be mentally strong to deal with things like that,” said Pierrilus. “A country where people are kidnapped every day. A country where people are killed. You have to be strong.”
The 42-year-old financial adviser spends most of his day locked in a house reading self-help, business and marketing books in a neighborhood where gunshots can often be heard outside.
Lawyers for Pierrilus in the US are still fighting his deportation order, leaving him in legal limbo while the Biden administration ramps up deportations to Haiti, despite pleas from activists to temporarily halt them amid the deepening chaos in the Caribbean country.
His case has become emblematic of what some activists call discrimination against Haitian migrants in the overburdened US immigration system. More than 20,000 Haitians were deported from the US last year, while thousands more left 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 occasionally occur.
Jimmy Aldaoud, who was born to Iraqi parents in a refugee camp in Greece and whose family immigrated to the United States in 1979, was deported to Iraq in 2019 after amassing multiple criminal convictions. Suffering from health problems and not speaking the language in Iraq, he died a few months later in a case often cited by lawyers.
Pierrilus’ parents brought him to the United States so that they could have a better life and he could get a better education.
In his early 20s, he was convicted of selling crack cocaine. Because he was not a US citizen, Pierrilus was transferred from criminal detention to immigration detention, where he was considered a Haitian national due to his ancestry and was deported to Haiti.
Pierrilus managed to delay the deportation with several legal challenges. Not classified as a community threat or a flight risk, he was released, given a work permit and required to make annual inquiries with immigration officials.
He later became a financial planner.
Then, in February 2021, he was deported without warning and his lawyers don’t know exactly why his situation has changed.
Lawyers from the non-profit human rights organization Robert F. Kennedy in Washington have taken up his case. “We demand that the Biden administration bring Paul home,” said the organization’s attorney, Sarah Decker.
French St. Martin does not automatically confer French citizenship on foreign parents born on its territory, and his family has not applied for it. Nor have they officially applied for Haitian citizenship, to which Pierrilus is entitled.
Although he could obtain Haitian citizenship, his lawyers have argued that he is not currently a Haitian citizen, has never lived there and should not be deported to a district with such political instability.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in a brief general statement to The Associated Press, said every country has an obligation under international law to accept the return of its nationals who do not have the right to remain in the U.S. or any other country. An ICE spokeswoman said no further information could be provided about Pierrilus’ case, including what evidence the US government had that he was a suspected Haitian citizen and why it was 13 years before he was suddenly deported.
In 2005, the Immigration Service rejected an appeal by Pierrilus’ former lawyers to stop his deportation, saying: “It is not necessary for the defendant to be a citizen of Haiti for that country to be named as the country of deportation. Decker, his current attorney, disagrees with that finding.
Pierrilus said that during his deportation he told immigration officers, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not from where you’re sending me.”
Overpowered and handcuffed, he said he had stopped resisting. As he boarded the plane, he recalled women screaming and children whining. Inside he felt the same. Pierrilus didn’t know when and if he would see his family or friends again.
After being checked in at the airport, someone lent Pierrilus a cell phone so he could call his parents. They put him in touch with a family friend where he could stay temporarily. Since then, gang violence has forced him to jump through two other houses.
Since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, warring gangs have increased their control of territory in the Haitian capital to an estimated 60%, looting neighborhoods, raping and shooting civilians.
The United Nations warned in January that Haitians are suffering the worst humanitarian emergency in decades. More than 1,350 kidnappings were reported last year, more than double the number of the previous year. Killings increased by 35% with more than 2,100 reported.
Pierrilus says he saw a man driving through his neighborhood shot in the face as bullets smashed the windows and pockmarked the man’s car.
“Can you imagine that? This guy spins around and tries to flee the area. I don’t know what happened to the guy,” he said.
As a result, he rarely goes out, relying on his faith for hope. He says he stopped going to church after watching a livestreamed service in April 2021 where gangs broke into the church and kidnapped a pastor and three parishioners.
Pierrilus speaks to his parents at least once a week, focusing on the progress of his case rather than the challenges in Haiti.
He was reluctant to share his first impressions of his parents’ homeland when he landed in Haiti two years ago. “I had mixed feelings,” he said. “I wanted to see what it looked like in my time, not under these circumstances.”