MIAMI -- More than 30 Haitians who boarded U.S.-bound planes without paperwork in frenzied evacuations after the earthquake were freed from immigration detention centers Thursday after spending about two months behind bars, attorneys for the Haitians said.
Some of the Haitians said they boarded U.S. military planes because they were hungry or simply desperate to escape the epic humanitarian crisis. U.S. immigration officials warned Haitians they might be detained if they entered the country illegally, yet the country also suspended deportations after the Jan. 12 quake.
"We knew these Haitians were not about to be deported because of our government's policy. They didn't have criminal histories. They had suffered terribly. We just couldn't figure out why they weren't being released," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which worked for the Haitians' release.
A total of 65 Haitians had been detained in Florida and other states, said Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. It's not immediately clear what will happen to the rest of the detainees.
A story about the detainees was first reported in The New York Times.
Jackson Ulysse, 20, walked out of the Pompano Beach detention center Thursday with plans to reunite with an uncle in Connecticut, learn English and attend a trade school.
"He said that he is very happy, first because he is still alive after the earthquake, and second that he is released," said a family friend translating from Haitian Creole for Ulysse.
When he arrived in Orlando with his brother Jan. 19, he was shocked when his Haitian passport wasn't enough to gain him entry to the U.S. Ulysse said he must report to immigration officials later this month. The terms of Ulysse's release and the other Haitians wasn't immediately clear, but they may be eligible for working permits, Little said.
The survivors' accounts reflect the chaos at the Port-au-Prince airport soon the earthquake. While the U.S. military worked to establish order, air traffic snarled and aid workers, journalists, international troops and evacuees competed for space between luggage carousels and under jetways.
The disorder continued in Florida, where hospitals were overwhelmed with injured survivors and state officials complained about a lack of communication about the evacuations, prompting the U.S. military to halt medical airlifts for several days.
By the end of February, U.S. Customs and Border Protection processed more than 31,000 people evacuated from Haiti, including roughly 7,200 foreign nationals. About 1,100 received humanitarian parole while others received tourist visas.
Haitians already living in the U.S. illegally by Jan. 12 were allowed to apply for temporary protected status, an 18-month reprieve from deportation that also allows recipients to work.
One survivor represented by the advocacy center said he went to the Port-Au-Prince airport looking for food and saw the U.S. military hurrying people onto planes.
"Desperate to escape the suffering and misery of my situation, and anxious to re-establish contact with my surviving family members, I decided to board the plane," Emmanuel Philogene, 27, wrote in his petition for release. He was apprehended when his plane landed in Puerto Rico.