Flashback Feature: Haitian Asylum Project

Last Updated

August 28, 2023

After a coup d'état toppled the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Sept. 29, 1991, a mass exodus from Haiti ensued. In the months following the overthrow, CLINIC launched the Catholic Haitian Asylum Project in November 1991. Over 40,000 Haitian asylum seekers were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and were held at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba – over 400 were unaccompanied minors. Of the total number of apprehended migrants, the now-defunct Immigration Naturalization Service determined that over 10,400 had a “credible fear” of persecution upon return to the island. Those who passed the credible fear interviews were paroled into the United States for the express purpose of political asylum. Although funding from the Department of Justice was used to resettle thousands of Haitian asylum seekers, federal funds were not allowed to provide legal assistance. As a result, CLINIC raised and spent over $1,000 a day to support the Haitian Asylum Project – totaling over $300,000.

Although based in Miami, operations were also carried out in West Palm Beach, Florida; New York City; Providence, Rhode Island; and Boston, where many Haitians sought to live. Several hundred pro bono lawyers were recruited and trained across the country to complete and submit asylum and work authorization paperwork. This great initiative led to the creation of a 1,236-page Master Exhibit on human rights abuses in Haiti to equip pro bono lawyers to interview applicants more thoroughly and to construct well-documented claims for their applications. Towards the end of the project two years later, over 5,000 Haitians received assistance, largely from CLINIC’s Miami office. Despite increasing backlogs in the decision-making process, CLINIC successfully advocated for a second year-long extension of parole and work authorization for eligible Haitians. As a result, CLINIC quickly gained traction as a relatively new organization throughout the U.S. Catholic Church, federal government, and immigration legal community.

As CLINIC celebrates its 35th year of dedicated service, it is important to look back at how far we have come in order to move forward to create a truly just and equitable immigration system.