Rules entangle many striving to return to US from Haiti

Jenny Ulysse of Boston, a US permanent resident, was visiting family when the earthquake hit. Ulysse lost her green card in the rubble and is stuck in Haiti for now. Jenny Ulysse of Boston, a US permanent resident, was visiting family when the earthquake hit. Ulysse lost her green card in the rubble and is stuck in Haiti for now. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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Three weeks after she was nearly buried alive by the earthquake in Haiti, Jenny Ulysse, 20, spends her days looking after her younger stepsiblings, including a 10-month-old baby. She sleeps outside in a church parking lot, and uses homemade lemon salve to treat her badly injured ankle.

All the while, her mind is churning, searching for a way to get back home to Boston.

Ulysse, who was visiting family in Haiti when the quake hit, is a permanent resident of the United States, but not a citizen - a status that leaves her ineligible for evacuation assistance.

Her quandary is one of hundreds of complex dilemmas still faced by American families, according to aid groups and legislators, who say the onslaught of requests for help has barely slackened since the Jan. 12 disaster. Staff members for Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry continue to take 50 to 100 calls a day from Haitian-Americans, most seeking help getting relatives out of Haiti; state Representative Marie St. Fleur said she is still receiving 100 e-mails a day requesting everything from medical care for victims to intervention in stalled adoptions.

In many cases, there is little anyone can do. Kerry’s staff helps callers fill out forms to petition for visas for family members, but the process was slow even before the recent dev astation, with wait times as long as two years. Calls to St. Fleur’s office have relayed desperate pleas from Haitians in places aid has still not reached, leaving her to forward their locations to federal agencies and relief organizations in hopes of sending food and water their way.

“It’s overwhelming right now,’’ said St. Fleur, who was born in Haiti. “It’s hard because you know people are suffering, and you don’t have any real answers for them.’’

Ulysse’s case is complicated. Because she is not a US citizen, she cannot be evacuated; because she lost her green card, she does not have documents that would allow her to take a commercial flight back to the United States. Kerry’s office appealed on her behalf to the US State Department, but with no result so far. An unknown number of other legal immigrants remain in the same limbo.

A State Department official, speaking last week on the condition of anonymity, said that calls about permanent US residents stuck in Haiti were “definitely coming in,’’ but that she was unaware of any plans to widen the evacuation. “During this time, we’re just trying to get citizens out, and I’m not sure when that rule is going to change,’’ the official said.

Permanent residents are legal immigrants who have been given permission to live and work in the United States. They usually acquire that status by being sponsored by an employer or family member. Permanent residents may not vote and must wait five years before applying for citizenship.

US permanent residents stuck in Haiti since the earthquake may be evacuated only if they are accompanied by a citizen, the State Department said.

The department reported Friday that the government has evacuated 13,427 US citizens. An estimated 45,000 citizens were living and working in Haiti at the time of the earthquake.

For some citizens, injuries have been a roadblock to coming home. Yves Isidor, editor of the website, said his friend Lucien Pierre of Waltham suffered a head injury when his cousin’s house collapsed, and his condition has prevented him from returning to Boston. A cabdriver who hosted a local AM radio show featuring Haitian music and politics, Pierre made the trip to visit family and friends, Isidor said.

“I am told he was close to losing his life,’’ Isidor said. “I am urging him to return, because the hospitals there are deprived of basic medical tools.’’

Edwina Chauvet of Boston, a Haitian-American, is worried about her brother-in-law, who has leukemia, and had only a week’s supply of medicine when she spoke to him after the earthquake. Chauvet’s sister has a tourist visa and could come to the United States, but the sister’s sick husband does not. “I am praying he will be granted a letter so he can come here,’’ Chauvet said.

Ulysse immigrated to Boston at age 9 and lives with her mother in Hyde Park. She works as a youth organizer for a Boston activist group, the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. In an interview that ended abruptly when her cellphone connection was lost, she said she left Boston on Christmas to visit her stepmother and siblings in Haiti. She was still in Haiti on Jan. 12 because she missed her scheduled flight back, said Jonathan Regis, one of several friends in Boston who are trying to help bring her home.

Ulysse said she was socializing with family at her stepmother’s hair salon in Mariani, a coastal area west of Port-au-Prince, when the earth started shaking. “It felt like I was flying, and something was telling me to run, and then, in a second, everything crashed down on top of me,’’ she said. “I was praying in my heart, ‘God, please give me a second chance,’ but there was something on my neck, and my leg felt broken.’’

Family members dug her out of the debris after her sister noticed her hand sticking out of the fallen building. Killed in the collapse was her stepmother Yolanda, 39, a successful businesswoman who Ulysse said was “like a sister’’ to her.

Since then, she has helped care for siblings and cousins ages 7, 8, 12, and 15, and a baby. Twice she has trekked to the US embassy in Port-au-Prince, seeking help returning home, but she said officials offered no assistance.

Friends and colleagues in Boston have worked steadily to raise awareness of Ulysse’s plight, which was first reported by the Boston Phoenix last week. The Union of Minority Neighborhoods partnered with the International Action Center in New York to circulate a petition seeking her return, and that of other stranded permanent residents.

Friends sent Ulysse $150 last week so she could hire someone with power tools to dismantle the wreckage of her family’s ruined business. The work has been underway since Friday, Regis said, but her green card is still missing.

When and if she finds it - and if she gets the money - Ulysse plans to travel to the Dominican Republic to seek a commercial flight home.

“I’m discouraged but not hopeless,’’ she said. “When I get back to Boston, I’m going to fill out my papers and become a citizen, and then come back and help. . . . You have to see it to believe what’s happening.’’