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Free Legal Clinics Help Haitian Immigrants Gain Temporary Protection In U.S.

FREE LEGAL CLINICS FOR ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

MARK SPENCER

February 07, 2010

HARTFORD - Every once in a while, Jean Dener Gourdet finds himself contemplating how hard his life has been, despite his efforts to improve his lot.

Every hard-fought step forward seems to be overwhelmed by counteracting forces, the latest being the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti, his homeland.

Gourdet watched the tragedy unfold on television from a family friend's home in Hartford, where he was been living since August after arriving illegally in the U.S.

Sitting in a conference room Saturday at city hall, Gourdet was cautious about whether there is any glimmer of hope in the making.

At one of five free legal clinics held around the state, lawyers riffled through papers as they helped him fill out the complicated forms to apply for temporary protected status. The designation allows qualified undocumented Haitian immigrants to live and work in the country legally for at least 18 months, perhaps years if the government extends it.

Gourdet, 27, appeared reluctant to show his emotions, but after hours combing through the forms, he relented. With tears in his eyes, he said he couldn't talk about the earthquake because too many people he knows are dead. His children, aged 2 and 3, are alive, but their home was destroyed.

An education and professional career are his long-term goals, but, for now, a work permit and a job any job will do.

"I need to find a way to make money because my kids are sleeping on the streets in Haiti," he said.

About 100 undocumented Haitians showed up Saturday at clinics in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford and Norwich sponsored by Connecticut Lawyers for Haiti, a joint project of the local chapters of the American Lawyers Guild and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The day after the earthquake the federal government suspended deportations of Haitians, then made Haitians living here illegally as of Jan. 12 eligible for temporary protected status.

This kind of program takes effect when a country is facing a crisis because to a war or natural disaster. Haiti joins El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan as countries designated for the program.

While Gourdet is one of the more recent Haitian arrivals in the Hartford area, Henri Alexandre thinks he was among the first. When his family settled on Greenfield Street in the city's North End in 1963, when Alexandre was 10, their neighbors were Jewish, Irish and Italian.

He eventually became a lawyer and spent 25 years as an assistant attorney general before retiring this summer and going into private practice.

He has seen the Haitian community grow to what he guesses to be about 15,000 in the state, centered in Fairfield County, with up 6,000 in the Hartford area. Gourdet came here for the same reason as many others before him.

"Whenever there's a coup or political turmoil in Haiti, a lot of people leave," Alexandre, a board member of the Connecticut Haitian American Organization, said.

In 2006, Haiti held a presidential election to replace a government that had been installed after a rebellion in 2004, a vote that had been delayed four times. In a country rife with political corruption, Gourdet said he wanted a fair election, so he volunteered as an observer.

"I wanted things to work the way they are supposed to work in a democratic state," he said.

On election day in his hometown, he saw a group of men who had already voted get back in line. He reported them and officials ordered them to leave. Instead, they attacked and beat Gourdet.

"I thought I was about to die," he said.

He was chased out of the polling place, where Haitian police fired their rifles into the air to scare off them mob and took him to a hospital. By the time he got back to the small house owned by his family, it had been set on fire, leaving them homeless and afraid. Gourdet and his family fled to Port au Prince, but he believed if he stayed in Haiti he would be killed.

Getting to the U.S. presented more hardship. After working to raise money, he flew to Mexico, where he worked for 10 months and eventually paid human smugglers $2,500 to take him across the border. As often happens, he was kidnapped along with the other migrants in his group and was held for almost two months before a family friend in the U.S. sent more money.

After making it to Texas, he was picked up by the Border Patrol and held for eight months before being released. He sought political asylum, a status he still hopes to win.

Dana R. Bucin, an attorney who helped Gourdet with the forms, said Gourdet's story was moving, but unfortunately not unique. "It's the folks who have had difficult lives who come to these clinics," Bucin said.

Gourdet said he loves Haiti and misses his children, but returning would be dangerous and would accomplish little.

"It's too hard in Haiti," he said. "Here, I can work for my family."

As he waited to help at the clinic Saturday, Alexandre expressed confidence in his native country and said Haitians here will be an integral part of its recovery.

"We're a very resilient people," he said. "Haiti will be rebuilt."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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