Novelist's uncle dies in custody of Homeland Security

By Mark Follman
November 20, 2004 4:43AM (UTC)
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The St. Petersburg Times reports today that Joseph Dantica, an 81-year-old Haitian Baptist minister who recently applied for political asylum in Miami, died in early November in the custody of the U.S. Homeland Security Department. His family says HSD officials, who took away Dantica's high blood pressure medication while he was in their custody, are responsible for his death.

"U.S. immigration officials took the Rev. Dantica to jail, where he died before he had the chance to make his case for asylum. His family held a wake for him Thursday at a Miami funeral home. 'He died alone in a hospital bed,' said his niece Edwidge Danticat, 35, who is a U.S. citizen."


According to the Times, Dantica had recently gone into hiding in Haiti, fearing for his life after a recent run-in with political gangs. When he and his son, Maxo, arrived in Miami on Oct. 29, Dantica announced that he wished to seek asylum. Though he'd previously entered the U.S. many times to visit family and religious colleagues in Miami and New York, the asylum request meant bypassing a regular tourist visa: "Instead, Dantica and his son were detained," reports the Times. "They were taken to Krome Detention Center, an immigration facility outside Miami. There, father and son were separated. The family says Dantica's high blood pressure medication was taken away from him. ...

"Homeland Security rejected any responsibility for Dantica's death. 'Mr. Dantica died of pancreatitis while in Homeland Security custody, which an autopsy by the Miami-Dade County medical examiner's office revealed as a pre-existing and fatal condition,' the department said. It added that it was 'unfortunate' that he died during the asylum interview. 'We understand his family's grief, but there is no connection between the pre-existing terminal medical condition he had and the process through which he entered the country.'

"Homeland Security said Dantica was carrying 'no legitimate prescribed medicine.' All he had in his possession was a 'folk remedy,' which the department described as some kind of 'poultice' or dressing."


The incident may draw more attention to the issue of Haitian refugees, whose country has been in turmoil since the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February. It may also bring more scrutiny to the way in which Bush's Homeland Security Department handles immigrant detainees in the new dark era of the war on terrorism.

"'We're completely outraged by the way he was treated,' said Danticat, the pastor's niece. She is an acclaimed Haitian-American novelist and winner of the 1999 American Book Award, among a host of literary triumphs. 'He was no threat to this country. He had family nearby. We only live 15 minutes from the airport. We were ready to take responsibility for him,' she said."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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