A paperwork mix-up nearly derails asylum seeker

AP News
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Posted: Apr 11, 2011 12:02 AM
A paperwork mix-up nearly derails asylum seeker

Kesnel Sineus thought he was following all the rules in his bid for asylum.

The Haitian native filed an application, wrote letters to nudge his case along, had an interview, then waited for the next step.

It turned out to an unexpected one: Federal agents came knocking on his door. He was being ordered out of the country _ his life derailed, in part, by a paperwork mix-up.

Sineus' fight began in 2000, he says, after he paid a smuggler to get him to Miami by boat. An acquaintance in the Haitian community later helped him file for political asylum. Sineus spoke only Creole and was a stranger to the U.S. legal system.

"I know only one thing," he says. "When I'm here, I'm safe."

When a friend urged him to move to Arizona, Sineus, now 43, notified immigration officials of his new address. He started cleaning houses and offices in Phoenix.

In early 2005, Sineus sent a letter to the asylum office in California to ask about an interview. He later moved, sent a change of address card to immigration officials, and had his interview, according to his lawyer, Anthony Pelino.

In May 2007, he received a notice to appear before an immigration judge _ that meant his asylum request wasn't approved, but he could make a case in court.

But a second letter telling him the court date was sent to his old Arizona address. He never received it.

So when he didn't show up, the judge ordered him deported _ and that notice also was sent to the same wrong address, Pelino says.

Sineus was surprised to see agents from U.S Immigration and Custom Enforcement at his door _ his correct address.

"They asked, `Is this your house, is this your truck, is this your business?' I said, `Yes,'" recalls Sineus, who'd started a small cleaning company. "They put a chain on my waist. They put me in handcuffs. They never said anything else."

After 26 days in federal custody, mostly at the Eloy Detention Center, Pelino succeeded in getting Sineus released. But freedom came with a price. He'd lost his clients.

"When I came back, I didn't have any more work, I couldn't make my house payments ... I never get back my life," says Sineus, who had to move.

He also had to pay a $1,500 bond _ infuriating Pelino.

"This is someone who was trying to move the process along. ... He complied with all the requirements ... but because of a clear government error, his life is thrown into chaos," he says. "They took him out of his community and made him pay money to go back in ... It's just ridiculous."

A judge finally granted Sineus asylum _ and he survived a government appeal. It became official last August, more than nine years after he'd applied.

"I am not feeling too happy about what was done to me," Sineus says of the paperwork mix-up. And yet, he's grateful, too.

"I give thanks to God," he declares, "and I say, God bless America."