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In New Memoir, Award-Winning Haitian Novelist Edwidge Danticat Chronicles Death of Her Uncle at Federal Immigration Jail

StoryOctober 05, 2007
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Edwidge Danticat is an award-winning Haitian-born writer who now lives in Miami. In November 2004, Danticat’s 81-year-old uncle, Reverend Joseph Dantica, died in the custody of immigration officials. He had arrived from Haiti seeking political asyslum following threats on his life. Denied his medicines and accused of faking an illness, he died just days after his detention. Edwidge Danticat tells this devastating story in her latest book, “Brother, I’m Dying.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Immigrant detention centers constitute one of the fastest-growing forms of incarceration in the U.S. Currently there are 30,000 immigrants in detention. Nearly 300,000 are detained each year. They’re held in private, federal or county prisons across the country for weeks, even months, while the government decides whether to deport them. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security, one quarter of the people they detain suffer chronic health conditions. ICE claims to spend $98 million a year on healthcare for detainees and to provide them with “humane and safe detention environments.”

But at least 65 people have died in ICE custody since 2004. The House Judiciary Committee organized a hearing Thursday afternoon on this subject. Tom Jawetz of the ACLU prison project called the care at the detention centers “grossly deficient, inexcusable, and immoral.”

Edwidge Danticat is an award-winning Haitian-born writer, now lives in Miami, Florida. She testified at Thursday’s congressional hearing. In November of 2004, her 81-year-old uncle, Reverend Joseph Dantica, died in the Krome detention center in Miami. He had just fled Haiti after hiding from an armed gang that threatened to kill him, because United Nations and Haitian police forces had fired shots from the roof of his church. Reverend Dantica arrived at Miami International Airport with a multiple-entry visa, said he was applying for temporary political asylum. He was immediately detained. His medicines were taken away from him. A medic at Krome accused him of “faking his illness.” He died a few days later.

Edwidge Danticat tells this devastating story in her latest book. It’s a memoir called Brother, I’m Dying. She joins me now from Miami, Florida. We welcome you, Edwidge Danticat, to Democracy Now!

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you, Amy. Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Talk about your testimony yesterday.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Yesterday, I tried to paint a picture of my uncle, of what he meant to us, but also to link his cause to the greater cause of mistreatment and lack of medical care of immigrants in detention. In his case, when he arrived, as you said, his medications were taken away, but also the fact that he became ill in a hearing in front of an immigration judge, and that wasn’t taken seriously. So that brought — his case and many of the cases brought to — needs to be brought to attention. I mean, other people need to know about it.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe graphically in your book how he died and what it meant, as you frantically called — tried to reach your uncle at the prison. Describe how he was taken to Krome along with his son and what happened to him there.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, as soon as he arrived at the airport, and he — my uncle had been coming to the United States for about 30 years to visit, and he had a visa, he had a passport. But when he requested asylum, he knew that he would stay longer. He was arrested, and he was held for a little bit in an airport detention place, and then he was taken on a bus and brought to Krome.

We didn’t speak to him — I didn’t speak to him until the following Monday, where he described the fact that his medication was taken away. And, you know, and he had been through an awful lot in Haiti. So it was very traumatic. I mean, he was going through a very difficult, difficult time.

I used in the book — we had to file a Freedom of Information request to get his records, and I used very much the interviews and the details that I get from the government report, so that we’re not accused of embellishing things. I used pretty — almost — in some cases word-for-word what they said happened to him.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to step back for a minute. Your deeply moving memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, is the story of your uncle, who also was a second father to you, raising you in Haiti, and your father here in New York. Take us back to, well, where you were born, how you were raised, where you were raised, and the relationship you had with these two men.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I was born in Port-au-Prince in 1969. It was during the Duvalier dictatorship. My family is originally from a village in the countryside in Haiti, and my uncle, who was the patriarch of our family, was the oldest, and he was the first to come to the city, and his other siblings followed, including my father.

He was a politically active man in his youth. He was a great follower of a man named Daniel Fignolé, who was a very popular leader. And when Fignolé was unseated by and replaced by Duvalier, he joined a church in Bel Air, which is now one of the poorest areas in Haiti, but still a very politically involved area, was one of the most beautiful areas. And eventually, throughout the years it became very poor. But my uncle remained there for more than 50 years and worked in this church.

My father, on the other hand, moved to Brooklyn, where he was a cab driver for many years. So I grew up with both men for the first 12 years of my life. My father left when I was two. So I spent 10 years with my uncle and then came to New York at age 12 to be reunited with my father.

So the book is about the two of them and really how — you know, because it was strange to me when all this was over that now both my father and my uncle are buried in Queens, New York, I think something that neither of them had imagined, so I tried to trace their journeys and also a bit of my journey.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge, describe what it was like to live with your uncle and aunt in Haiti, to have your parents visit; but what that was like to reunite with your parents, though you considered your uncle and aunt your parents, as well; what it was like to leave Haiti.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, my experience is not atypical of a lot of families who are touched by migration. My father came first, and then we followed. But growing up with my aunt and uncle, it was just a — we were just a large extended family. There are many in the same situation, whose parents had migrated to New York or to Canada and some to the Dominican Republic. So we were all these children in the house with my uncle and my aunt. And my uncle, because he was part of the church, we had a larger community.

My parents came to visit once, because they had — they came back to get their residency. And then, it was about five years after they got their residency that we were able to join them. And in the meantime, we were — you know, they had to — we had to take paternity tests, all the immigration obstacles and, you know, sort of all the steps. We took all this time, and we had to go through all that, before we came together to live in New York in a predominantly Caribbean area in East Flatbush in Brooklyn.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you adjust to New York and to your parents, your new family, your little brothers who you hadn’t lived with before?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, it took a little bit of adjustment, first of all, with New York. I didn’t speak the language, and it took a while. I was in an English-as-a-second-language class. And with my brothers, it was — we were lucky in that it was immediately we came together pretty quickly. And I think my parents worked very hard on trying to join us together.

But it was a very difficult time to come to New York, because I came in 1981, and it was a time where people were first talking about AIDS and Haitians were put on — we were stigmatized as on the high-risk list there, and so a lot of the people in my parents’ building, for example, were losing their job, because people didn’t know very much about AIDS, and we were on the list. And then, people were just beginning to come by boat in large numbers to Miami. So these were the things that, you know, people immediately associated with us as young Haitian kids in school, kids or teachers. And so, it was a difficult time, but it was — you know, it was also an instructive time.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you become a writer?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I became a writer because I come from a very strong storytelling culture and also because of all these things that I witnessed, I think. Very early on when we got here, my dad used to take me to visit Haitian detainees at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where they were held then. And just observing different things, I always thought I wanted to document things. And the way that the storytellers of my childhood told stories, that’s really what made me want to be a writer.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you now talk about the later part of your father’s life, because Brother, I’m Dying is about two brothers, your dad and your uncle, and how, within a few days, you had lost both of them? Talk about your father’s sickness and what it meant, how you coped.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, my father had spent more than 25 years as a gypsy-cab driver in New York. And when he became sick in the summer of 2004 — he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis — we thought that that might have something to do with, you know, being out on the street all that time driving a cab. So it’s a very — he died of a very painful lung disease. It took him about nine months in bed. He slowly died.

But his — the way he died is very — in contrast to my uncle’s sudden death, was very prolonged period, and we had a chance to have some extraordinary conversations about his life, about the family, and even about immigration and what that means and the sacrifices that you made, and just personal things. And I was pregnant at the same time with my daughter. And, you know, we had an opportunity to have a lot of conversations about the future, about personal things, political things. And I feel very lucky that we had had that time together, because my father really — he was, you know, sort of the model immigrant, if you will, who — he worked extraordinarily long hours, and he managed to buy a house, to build a life here at great sacrifice and at great cost. And so, I’m very lucky that we had a chance to examine that and that then I have a chance to also share that in the book.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’re going to come back to the great award-winning Haitian American novelist, writer. Edwidge Danticat’s books include Breath, Eyes, Memory, The Farming of the Bones, Krik? Krak! and The Dew Breaker. Her latest is called Brother, I’m Dying. It’s a memoir. We’ll be back with Edwidge in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Edwidge Danticat, the award-winning Haitian-American writer. Her latest book is a memoir; it’s called Brother, I’m Dying. Edwidge, I was wondering if you could read from your book.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Yes, I’ll read a little bit towards the end. “After my uncle Joseph died, my father told me that he dreamed of him only once and never in the small group he pictured around his bed. In my father’s dream, when my uncle calls him from New York the night he nearly died, my father actually makes it there on time to ride in the ambulance with him and hold his hands. 'He must have been so scared,' my father said, 'not knowing whether he was going to live or die.'

“Like perhaps most people whose loved ones have died, I wish I had some guarantees about the afterlife. I wish I were absolutely certain that my father and uncle are now together in some tranquil and restful place, sharing endless walks and talks, beyond what their too few and too short visits allowed. I wish I knew that they were offering enough comfort to one another to allow them both not to remember their distressing, even excruciating, final hours and days. I wish I could fully make sense of the fact that they’re now sharing a gravesite and tombstone in Queens, New York, after living apart for more than thirty years.

“In any case, every now and then I try to imagine them in a walk through the mountains of Beau Sejour in Haiti. It’s dawn, a dazzling morning. Over the green hills, the sun is slowly rising, burning through the fog. They’re peacefully making their way down the zigzag trail that joins the villages to the rest of the world below. And in my imagining, whenever they lose track of one another, one or the other calls out in a voice that echoes throughout the hills, 'Kote ou ye, fre myen? Brother, where are you?' And the other one quickly answers, 'Mwen la. Right here. Brother, I am right here.'”

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat reading from her new memoir. It’s called Brother, I’m Dying. The last chapter, where you have — where in the last few chapters your uncle and your father are dying, you’re in Miami, you’re pregnant. Describe speaking with your father, learning about what was happening with your uncle at Krome, trying to bring an attorney in, what that whole process was in dealing with Krome and then trying to find out what happened afterwards.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, it began at the airport. My uncle called me from the airport, and he’s saying — actually, the customs people from the airport called, and they said that my uncle was going to Krome. And then, immediately we tried to get a lawyer, but it was the weekend. He arrived on a Friday. So there was no getting into Krome until Monday morning. So, Monday morning, we got a lawyer who was trying to get him on a humanitarian parole, because he was 81 years old and not well. And so, he had a credible fear hearing scheduled the next day the lawyer got in there.

And when he became ill and was taken first to the hospital unit at Krome and then to Jackson Memorial, we tried very hard to see him. That was the beginning of sort of the dealing with the bureaucracy of that, because, technically, when a person, when a detainee is in the custody of the ICE or the Department of Homeland Security, you have to go through a whole series of steps, and furthermore, he was in a prison ward, and even the attorney could not visit him in the prison ward. So we were not allowed to see him.

But the difficult part of that transaction, the most difficult part also was communicating some of that to my father, which was the beginning of, I guess, the narration of this book, in the sense that trying to craft a story for my father that would not break his heart, because he was also at death’s door at that point and was very emotionally affected, physically affected by the motions of that. So it was just going between the two of them and dealing with the bureaucracy.

And after he died, we were basically just — they gave us the corpse, and it had been autopsied, and they gave him a cause of death, a disease. They said he had acute and chronic pancreatitis, which he had never had any symptoms of and which he was not diagnosed or treated or screened for at Krome or at Jackson. So, basically, they give us a corpse and the clothes that he had been wearing. And that was supposed to be it, until we started asking for his medical records to find out what had happened. And we had to file a Freedom of Information request for the records and eventually a lawsuit in order to get his records from Krome.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you find?


AMY GOODMAN: And what did you find? And one of the things I was most struck by in the book, at the point where your uncle got so sick at Krome, was all of the bureaucracy that had to be gone through, even to get him to the hospital, as you looked at those documents.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Oh, yes, because, first of all, they — I mean, they had to, I guess, take his illness seriously. And eventually there was the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security that did an investigation, which we called for, among other places, on your show, when you were kind enough to have us in the middle of all of this. And the investigation eventually did take place. And what it was — I was surprised, because I had never seen — we also had to do a Freedom of Information request for the investigation. And what it turned out to be was a series of — a lot of it was redacted, but a series of interviews, interviews they had done with and with the medics, and so forth.

And among the things that we found out is that this medic, these people who had been interviewed, said things like, “Well, you know, we have experience with this, and we can tell if people are faking. He was looking at me. He was not limp,” and things like that. So, only after we had gotten some of these documents, which I think is probably a fraction of what actually exists, because a lot of it is blank when you get a FOIA request, is did we get some clue as to what happened to him, also the bureaucracy involved.

And we saw this in some of the hearing yesterday when people were talking, and I wasn’t aware of this when it was happening to me, that, for example, people in detention, especially in ICE detention, are supposedly only allowed medical care in emergency situations. That is, I mean, you have to be writhing on the floor sometimes to get care. And sometimes if you have a request for a certain kind of care, it has to go all the way to Washington. This was a revelation to me also in the judiciary hearing yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe how your uncle had the added complication of not being able to speak. Though he was a preacher in Haiti, he had lost his ability and had to put a machine to his throat to be able to be heard.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Yes, he had had cancer surgery some years ago and needed a voice box to speak and had to be — if anyone who’s seen this in process, you have to be erect. You have to be sitting down. You have to be propped up in order to use the voice box. So if he’s weakened, he’s not going to be able to communicate, if he’s not — so people who — if you don’t have a history of dealing with patients like that, you wouldn’t — he wouldn’t be able to communicate what he needed to say. But it wasn’t made easy, because even when he was vomiting and the vomit had gotten on the voice box, there was not really much — if you’re not taken seriously when you become ill, people are not going to make extra efforts to communicate with you, especially if you have difficulties.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of translating at these detention centers, of being able to communicate, as your uncle was getting deathly ill, going into a comatose state, not even being able to find a Creole interpreter.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: They had a Creole interpreter — in his case, they had, on the phone. So they were doing — he was in the middle of this hearing. And it’s not unusual that they have the phone interpreters. I think, in his case, the problem was more not being heard, because there were other detainees there who were, I guess, called in eventually to translate for him. So that is a problem in some cases. In his case, it was not the problem, as much as the fact that even when people understood what his needs were, they were not heard or acted on.

AMY GOODMAN: Was your father ever able to meet your baby before he died?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: He was. He was. And it was one of the — I mean, in the middle of all this sadness, it was one of the great things. I think there’s a — especially for families like mine, where you have years of separation and you have this sort of fragmentation, I think, for my father, it was so important to meet my daughter. And a lot of our conversations were about that. And she is named Mia; she’s named after him. And they were able to spend a month together before he died. And I think that meant a great deal to him, and it certainly means a great deal to me, you know, as we go forward. It’s a very — continuation in a family like mine is a very important thing, because of all these separations, because of — you know, some live here, some live there. So it was just wonderful for me and I think for him, too, that that was able to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat, I wanted to turn now to a different but related issue. There are an estimated 700,000 Haitian immigrants in neighboring Dominican Republic. The Dominican Constitution grants citizenship to those born on Dominican soil, except to the children of diplomats and those “in transit” through the country. Recently, the Dominican Supreme Court ruled that Haitian workers were “in transit” and staying in the country illegally. The children born to Haitian parents are thus denied Dominican citizenship. In protest, the Grassroots Haiti Solidarity Committee organized a picket Thursday in front of the Dominican consulate in New York. Democracy Now! spoke to some of the people at the protest.

PROTESTER: Today, I am here for Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic. Basically, they are treated as wage slaves, as they are here in the United States. A couple of months ago, there was an attack on some Haitian workers; it was a machete attack by some other Dominican workers. But the bigger issue here is the fact that the United States — they’re producing these products for the United States, and the United States is basically using Dominican Republic as a colony.

PROTESTER: The government of the Dominican Republic, as the representative of the ruling classes in the Dominican Republic, the bourgeoisie, and also the big land owners, the big plantation owners in the Dominican Republic, are behind this kind of xenophobic persecution of Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

PROTESTER: The Dominican government that’s carrying this out, but this whole system that was set up of basically exploiting near-slave labor, was set up by the United States when it was occupying both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. So the ultimate responsibility for this is in fact with the U.S. government.

AMY GOODMAN: Voices of protest outside the Dominican mission here in New York. Edwidge Danticat?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Amy, there are actually two films now that are out on this subject that are extraordinary. One is The Price of Sugar, and one is a film called Sugar Babies that I narrate that deals with these issues. I think it’s powerful what these protesters were saying, the focus that — to focus some of the heat also on the sugar industry and the United States and the fact that actually in one of the documentaries, one of the sugar barons who actually functions here in Florida and has had a conflict with migrant labor in Florida and that are still unresolved, you know, with lack of pay — the same issues that you have with some of these bateys in the Dominican Republic. And he says something like, you know, one out of — you know, half of the sugar — he’s in every cereal box, or something to that effect, that we consume his sugar in the United States, and people may not realize that there are some subsidies that are provided to these sugar-producing families in the Dominican Republic to produce the sugar that we use here in the United States. So these issues, certainly they’re connected, the issues of migration and the fact that these children are “in transit” for their entire lives. People who have been in the Dominican Republic for 50, 60 years are considered “in transit.” These issues and the conditions in the bateys are very important. But also it’s important for people who live here to realize, you know, it’s not disconnected from you, because this is supported by the sugar we consume here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat, I want to thank you very much for being with us and congratulate you on your latest book, the deeply moving memoir called Brother, I’m Dying.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you so much, Amy.

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