A blood test isn't a crime, so set her free

Anna Quindlen

November 20, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

IN the last year these things have happened to Silieses Success: Her parents were murdered, she fled her home in a boat, she was taken to a refugee camp, she was told she had "a little problem" with her blood, she gave birth to her first baby, and she buried him.

Perhaps, after all this, it may seem almost unremarkable that she is in prison despite the fact that she has been charged with no crime. She describes her days in the Detention Center run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Varick Street in New York City: "I get up, I sit down, I cry, I think."

For Ms. Success, imprisonment may seem just another part of the personal nightmare that followed last year's coup in her native Haiti. But for Americans who believe our country still stands for something special, it should be a reminder that disgraceful treatment of immigrants is not merely an exhibit at an artfully restored Ellis Island.

Ms. Success is in jail only because she is HIV positive, that "little problem" the doctor mentioned when she was held at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a latter-day leprosarium for Haitian refugees infected with the AIDS virus.

She says she did not know what her blood problem was until Ricardo died on Sept. 15, a little over three months after he was born. She was told that he had died as a result of HIV infection, although Ms. Success believes otherwise. She says that after his birth she was billeted with him in a large open tent during several days of rain and that he developed a bad cold. She says that when soldiers stormed through their living quarters one day, the baby was hit on the side of the head by a helmet.

"After that he would not take my milk," Ms. Success said in Creole through an interpreter.

Her son died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, where he and his mother had been sent from Guantanamo when his health deteriorated, and afterward Ms. Success became something of an immigration problem. Since the United States is one of the few nations in the world that excludes aliens who are HIV positive as public health risks, her blood test made her inadmissible for entry. But she was already here. And she had a fine case for political asylum in the deaths of her parents, who were supporters of the ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In an America obsessed with domestic malaise, the travails of the Haitians have been little noticed and less lamented. When George Bush decreed in May that we should turn back their boats, few evoked the shameful day in 1939 when the liner St. Louis was forced to return to Europe -- and many of its Jewish passengers to move on to concentration camps and death -- because it was denied permission to dock here. Perhaps it will require the long lens of history to understand how many Haitians died because we saw them only as faceless black problems.

Here there is a face, a broad one with penciled brows, a 22-year-old seamstress with a passionate mien and a baby buried in Maryland. She has law students from American University and Yale and lawyers from the university law clinics and the Center for Constitutional Rights working on her case. She has two church organizations ready to offer her a place to live.

But she also has an existence run by the INS, an organization that lives and dies by procedure and that deals very poorly indeed with individuals, otherwise known as people. One official said there was no reason to handcuff Ms. Success as guards have in the past, but couldn't promise that it wouldn't happen again. When she was strip-searched, she says, she was told: "This was a mistake. Please don't tell your lawyers."

President-elect Clinton has pledged to change the policy that sent Haitians back with no attempt to determine whether they had legitimate cases for asylum. And he has said that he will remove HIV infection as a bar to immigration.

But Ms. Success should not have to wait. The government may allow her to leave the Varick Street Detention Center at any time. The time is now. She should be set free for her own sake, it is true, so that she can begin to build a life out of the utter ashes of her old one. But perhaps she should be set free for our sake as well, so that we can begin to become again the kind of country that puts people in jail for doing wrong, not for getting sick.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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