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How a Spring Valley man was nearly deported to Haiti, a place he has never been

Nancy Cutler
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Eight ICE officers surrounded Paul Pierrilus as he crossed the tarmac at Alexandria International Airport in Louisiana on Tuesday, heading to a Haiti-bound plane.

Shackled at the wrists, ankles and waist, the Spring Valley resident continued to insist that he wasn’t a Haitian national and shouldn’t be sent to a country where he had never been. 

Pierrilus was to be the last to board one of the final, rushed deportation flights in the dwindling days of the Trump administration. 

Paul Pierrilus of Spring Valley was nearly deported to Haiti in January 2021, even though he is not a Haitian citizen and has never been to the country.

Then, his lawyer Katrina Bleckley recounted this week, another ICE officer came over and said Pierrilus wouldn't be boarding the flight and would instead be returned to New York.

It was just one step in an odyssey that nearly saw Pierrilus expatriated to a place where he has no relatives and no direct connections. He was born in French Saint Martin to Haitian parents but had lived in the U.S. for 35 of his 40 years. 

Pierrilus is effectively stateless, said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a California-based coalition of nonprofits that serves the Haitian community.

Though he was born in a French territory in the Leeward Islands, he wasn't automatically a citizen because his parents weren’t French nationals. He also didn’t automatically inherit Haitian citizenship through his parents, nor later U.S. citizenship.

Pierrilus has been in the U.S. on an order of supervision since around 2006. An OSUP status is often assigned to non-citizens who have violated U.S. immigration law, or have committed certain criminal acts, even fairly minor ones. OSUP status allows immigration to keep track of an individual, who is supposed to check in at certain intervals. It remains unclear why Pierrilus had OSUP status.

He was reporting to the ICE New York City Field Office in Federal Plaza in New York City on Jan. 11 — a standard procedure — when he was taken into custody, his lawyers say.

One of Paul's siblings has a similar stateless status while his younger siblings were minors when their parents were naturalized so they could gain U.S. citizenship.

U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones said on Thursday that Pierrilus was expected to be returned to Rockland County this week. Pierrilus, whose immigration status permits him to work, is a financial consultant.

How did Pierrilus end up in such a position in the first place? “Immigration is very complicated,” Jozef said.

A tough-on-immigration policy of the former administration and hastening of deportations to Haiti and certain African countries during Trump’s final weeks helped put Pierrilus in the predicament.

But, those involved say, credit for Pierrilus' salvation goes in part to a quick-thinking friend in Spring Valley and a new congressman who happened to grow up in the same village.

Jones' office steps in 

U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones, a Democrat, was elected in November to represent the 17th District. The 33-year-old grew up in Spring Valley, a center of life for generations of Haitian diaspora. 

"I am a son of Spring Valley. The Haitian community is my community. These are my friends, my neighbors, my loved ones," Jones said on Wednesday. "I pride myself on providing accessible leadership."

Jan 7, 2021 ; Washington, DC, USA; NY Rep. Mondaire Jones stands for a portrait in front of the U.S. Capitol the day after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol as the U.S. Congress met to formally ratify Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 Presidential election.

Jones notes that he gets daily requests from constituents, often through unusual pathways like Instagram DMs and LinkedIn messages.

On Monday, it was a message on his personal cellphone.

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Jones, whose short D.C. tenure has included a riot in the Capitol and an impeachment vote, said he was sneaking in some time on the treadmill Monday evening when he retrieved the message from Bleckley, a staff attorney with the Haitian Bridge Alliance.

She had gotten his number from someone Jones went to high school with.

"I immediately alerted (Legislative Director) Zach Fisch, we began to work on this really complicated wacky issue," Jones said. "We labored into the night. Zach was on the phone until 2 a.m. demanding (the Department of Homeland Security) provide approved travel documents."

There were none.

Even Haiti's ambassador to the U.S. took to Twitter to condemn the injustice of sending a man to a country he had never been.

Jozef, an expert on immigration issues, said Pierrilus should never had been on a deportation list to any locale, let alone Haiti. 

Jozef called the deportation order against Pierrilus "a cruel attempt to continue to target in general and Black immigrants in particular and specifically Haitian immigrants."

Jones said that Pierrilus' particular case was emblematic of a larger crisis in the U.S. immigration system. 

"It is largely a patchwork system," Jones said. "It is largely dependent on who is the leader of DHS and ICE and who holds the presidency."

That leaves attorneys, advocates and even members of Congress "trying to work miracles on a case-by-case basis," Jones said.

"It shouldn't be like that," Jones said. "If Paul hadn't had an attorney ... if Paul didn't have a member of Congress who cared, he would be in Haiti right now, a place he had never been."

Jones said he looks forward to studying President Joe Biden's immigration proposals, which includes a 100-day moratorium on any deportation of people already in the U.S. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Jones will have an active role in reviewing Biden's immigration legislation.

As for keeping Pierrilus in the U.S., Jones credits Fisch and the rest of his staff. "I've got the best team in government," he said. "We were relentless in our advocacy and that made all the difference."

Jozef said the effort "shows the power of collaboration … and not giving up."

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland