A Haitian refugee, who became the first naturalized American in 44 years ordered deported after losing his U.S. citizenship over a drug conviction, was released late Thursday from the Krome detention center after three nations refused to take him.
Lionel Jean-Baptiste, who turned 59 while behind bars, returned to his wife Raymonde and five children, three born in Haiti, two in the United States, ranging in age from 11 to 38 years old.
“God is good,” Jean-Baptiste said in Creole from the living room of his North Miami home. “I feel like a lottery winner.”
Jean-Baptiste survived a tragic sea voyage from Haiti, became a successful Miami restaurant owner and, in April 1996, a naturalized U.S. citizen.
But six months later he was indicted on charges of conspiracy to possess crack cocaine with the intent to distribute. He pleaded not guilty, but a Miami federal jury convicted him in 1997. He was sentenced to more than eight years in prison, but was released, with good-behavior credits, in January 2004.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved to revoke his citizenship in 2000, not because of the conviction but because the conviction occurred while he was awaiting citizenship, when he was required to be a person of “good moral character.”
The case marked the first time since 1962 that a denaturalized citizen was ordered deported after a drug conviction. In that case, an Italian-American was stripped of citizenship and deported.
On Sept. 12, Immigration judge Kenneth S. Hurewitz ordered Jean-Baptiste deported to his native Haiti.
But the Haitian government refused to take him back, saying that Jean-Baptiste renounced his Haitian citizenship when he swore allegiance to the United States in 1996.
Immigration authorities tried to send him to France and the Dominican Republic, with similar results.
By mid-December, his release appeared imminent. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that foreign nationals who cannot be deported must not be held indefinitely unless they are deemed a danger to the community or in other “special circumstance” cases.
“We don’t know why they chose to release him [today],” immigration attorney Andre Pierre said of ICE officials. “They just do it.”
Jean-Baptiste plans to keep his appointment today at the immigration building at Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 79th Street. He faces an uncertain future. He doesn’t know if he will be able to work or drive. His driver’s license was seized. But for now, he’s a free man and he’s heading to church.
“I am going to . . . thank God for everything he has done for me,” he said.