I’ve been to West Palm Beach to attend specific events. I’ve spoken in rallies many times, advocating for the rights of immigrants.
In 2000, I spoke in one of the largest gatherings ever to decry the disenfranchisement of millions of citizens at the poll. But I never had a chance to drive around as I did this past Saturday, albeit involuntarily. I got lost. West Palm Beach is a beautiful city. I finally made it to St. Anne Catholic Church. It was so quiet, elegant and peaceful that my sister and I wondered if the funeral was moved.
Then, we got in and our hearts sank. The agonizing cries, the desperate wailings hit me in the gut. The cries of a mother who lost her only son.
Valery Joseph was to celebrate his 24th birthday on July 8. His family was preparing a nice party because the judge apparently promised to release him on July 3. Instead, his mother, two sisters and grandmother attended a press conference organized by the Haitian community and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which is representing his parents for free.
They have been going through a tough time since his death. He arrived in the U.S. when he was 8 years old. Per all accounts, he was not a very bright child, but he was sweet and very respectful of his elders.
“He loved me so much,’’ his mother said. “And he counted on me to get him out of detention. He had so much faith in me and now, he is dead.”
Valery Joseph allegedly committed a few youthful indiscretions, and he was facing deportation to Haiti even though his entire family lives in the U.S.
He knows no one in Haiti. His family believed that other offenders he called his friends took advantage of him. Based on the 1996 laws, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the power to deport immigrants to their countries of origin, even in misdemeanor cases.
When the chorus started to sing the “Adieu song” at the funeral, the church exploded with lamentations, pleas and questions to God. Why?! Why?!
Haitians express strong emotions, sadness or happiness loudly. Whether they are giving birth or are in mourning, the world will know. This is part of the culture. The priest had to stop the service several times while the attendants pleaded for calm.
But how do you control emotions in a situation like this? It was no use. The questions grew louder, no answer is yet coming. According to Jacqueline Fleury, the only communication she’s received from ICE is a cold, dry letter that arrived a week after his death, stating that her son died of seizures.
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek asked for a thorough investigation: “I have asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to conduct an honest, open and transparent investigation into the death of Valery Joseph.
“We all demand cooperation from ICE. We require that sensitivity be shown toward the Joseph family, not thinly veiled accusations by ICE officials.”
Jean Robert Lafortune of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, deplored the systemic health care problems of people in ICE custody.
“We express deep concern about the sudden death of Valery Joseph we will work with the U.S. Congress to ensure a full investigation,’’ he said.
His lawyers expressed grave concerns about the possibilities of “stalling “ on the part of ICE and, as in the case of Rev. Joseph Danticat, the uncle of world-renowned, award-winning author Edwidge Danticat, conducting a “bogus investigation and report,” pregnant with questions.
Like many immigrants before him, Valery Joseph died alone in a cell.
A Washington Post article by Amy Goldstein and Dana Priest reported that “33,000 immigration detainees are in the custody of DHS… on any given day. This unnoticed prison system was built for a quick revolving door of detainees….but people linger for months or years…these detainees are entitled to medical care by law, but the immigration system often fails those who need it most…”
There are many questions related to Valery Joseph’s death: Why was he placed in isolation? If he were prone to seizures as ICE indicated, why was he left alone in a cell until morning?
Well-known immigration advocate Cheryl Little said in her testimony to Congress last year that, “recent reports of more than 60 deaths in immigration custody since 2004 have shed light on a system in crisis…we want to prevent further death….”
The family is horrified by the way Valery’s body was assaulted during the autopsy. If, as they claim, his body was subjected to unnecessary procedures, are there efforts of a cover up?
His family, the Haitian-American community, and all of us deserve an answer.
As a community, we cannot remain silent in the face of gross human rights violations. If we do, we are all culpable.
Marleine Bastien is the founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM), or Haitian Women of Miami, Inc.