MIAMI (AP) — Four Haitians who were among a group of Caribbean nationals found clinging to the hull of their capsized boat off the coast of Miami have been released from federal custody and could be eligible for work visas in the U.S.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had detained the survivors as part of an investigation into the accident that killed four women in the early hours of Oct. 17 seven miles east of Miami.
The four Haitians from that "failed smuggling venture have been processed and are no longer in ICE custody," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Nestor Yglesias said late Tuesday.
Haitian Women of Miami's executive director, Marleine Bastien, said Wednesday that she was elated that the Haitians had been released. She was joined Monday by Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, whose elderly uncle died in U.S. custody after fleeing violence in Haiti in 2004, and other community leaders in calling for the survivors' release and criticizing U.S. immigration policies that usually permit Cubans who reach U.S. shores to be quickly processed and released to their families, while Haitians and migrants from other countries typically are detained.
"We'll do our best to assist them in their transition to life in South Florida and we'll work with other organizations to help them prepare their legal claims," Bastien said. "Let this be a standing policy — there is no reason for refugees to linger in detention centers around the nation when they have a basic right to be free and present their cases in a court of law."
Since a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, the U.S. has not been deporting Haitians who do not have criminal records. The four survivors are witnesses in a criminal case, and their cooperation with law enforcement likely makes them eligible for visas that would allow them to work, said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based advocacy center Americans for Immigrant Justice.
It was not immediately clear whether another survivor, a Bahamian citizen, remained in detention.
Six other Jamaican and Bahamian survivors each face a federal charge of attempting to re-enter the U.S. after being deported. One also faces an attempted smuggling charge.
Five defendants are scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 31 in Miami federal court, and the sixth defendant's arraignment is scheduled for Nov. 4.
The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office previously identified one of the victims as Carmen Valeris, a Haitian woman.
One of the other victim's relatives has identified her as Woodline Alexis, also a Haitian woman, but the last two victims remain unidentified, Larry Cameron, director of operations at the medical examiner's office, said Wednesday.
Thousands of migrants from Haiti, Cuba and other Caribbean countries attempt to illegally enter the U.S. each year by attempting risky sea voyages in overloaded or unseaworthy vessels, often through established smuggling networks that include islands in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
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