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Haitians in U.S. mourn deaths of 9 migrants

Hope dissolves into grief after the U.S. Coast Guard suspends its search for more survivors from the sinking of a boat crowded with Haitian migrants off the Florida coast.
Boat Capsized
A U.S. Coast Guard vessel with a survivor and several bodies from a boat sinking heads to a dock in Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach, Fla., on Wednesday.Wilfredo Lee / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary's voice faded as he contemplated what to tell his parishioners at a prayer service Friday for the Haitian migrants aboard a boat that capsized off Florida's coast.

Hope dissolved into grief after the U.S. Coast Guard suspended its search Thursday night for more survivors.

At least nine people died, including a 1-year-old girl, when the boat carrying as many as 35 people overturned early Wednesday. Sixteen others were rescued that day about 15 miles off the Florida coast, some 60 miles north of Miami.

It's a familiar service for Jean-Mary: In 2007, a dilapidated sailboat filled with 101 Haitian migrants finished its three-week journey just north of Miami. One died, and the rest faced deportation. Each year, boats packed with migrants from the Caribbean nation make similar treks. An untold number perish along the way.

"It's not right. It's not right," Jean-Mary repeated Friday, each phrase softer than the last. He paused, then forced out the words again behind a weary sigh. "It's not right."

The migrants hope to escape Haiti's oppressive poverty and chronic instability, worsened last year by four tropical storms and hurricanes that killed 793 people, caused $1 billion in damage and crippled agriculture in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Since October, the Coast Guard has stopped 1,377 Haitians trying to get to the U.S.

Jean-Mary's parishioners at Notre Dame d'Haiti, a Roman Catholic church in Miami's Little Haiti, grieve not only for their dead countrymen, but also for survivors who often are deported. They hung their heads at a Mass on Wednesday night, when Jean-Mary broke the news about the nine deaths.

"People began to cry. You could hear the whispering of despair and frustration, the sadness in their voices and in the prayers they addressed to God," Jean-Mary said.

Survivors in good health
Family members and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were working to confirm the identities of the dead, said Tony Mead, operations manager for the Palm Beach County medical examiner's office.

The Coast Guard identified 11 survivors who had been held aboard a cutter, saying they were in good health and taken ashore Friday. They were to be processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, along with five others who were already ashore.

Geraldene Lubin rejoiced at the news that her cousin, Gibson Jean-Louis, was alive.

"If he'll be able to be released and come back to his family, that will be even better," she said.

Advocates and lawmakers have asked the U.S. government to grant temporary protected status to Haitians, which blocks deportations to countries hit by natural disasters or political upheaval. A handful of African and Central American nations have such protection, but President George W. Bush denied requests for similar protection for Haiti last year.

Pierre Massillon of Loxahatchee believed his 25-year-old cousin, Frencintte Belizaire, was among the migrants on board seeking a better life. Another cousin in the Bahamas told him Belizaire left Bimini on Tuesday aboard a boat bound for Miami.

Belizaire wanted to go to college, but there was no money for more schooling with seven siblings to support in Jean-Rabel, in remote northwestern Haiti. Massillon said he warned her four years ago to find another way.

"I told her, 'If you come here (by boat), there are two chances: You might not reach here because of the high risk, and if you reach here they might deport you,'" he said. "She said, 'Whatever it takes.'"