Friday, August 15, 2008 8:23 AM EDT

Haitian seeks political asylum to prevent deportation

Gherdith Destra, 21, speaks about the challenges her family faced in her native Haiti and the struggle they have faced since 2005 seeking political asylum in the United States. Gherdith attends college and is training to become a nurse. (Bob Falcetti / RA)

WATERBURY -- In the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, Belisca Destra and his family enjoyed modest success. Destra owned a small business, a hardware store, and served as pastor of a Christian church. His four children did well in school.

The family's enterprising spirit is the kind that might offer hope for Haiti's future. But the death threats against them forced them to flee.

They left behind their careers, schools, family and friends for what they hoped would be a better life in Waterbury -- a life without constant fear.

"It's not easy for us because I had a good life as a minister, with a good business, a nice house," Destra said. "But I have to be able to live."

Living in the United States poses its own challenges. Destra and his family left their hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, with visitors' visas by telling people they were "going on vacation."

As immigrants without legal status, in some ways life is harder for the former businessman and his family. Destra works for Home Depot and preaches to local Haitian congregations, earning barely enough money to make ends meet.

His oldest daughter, Gherdith Destra, 21, works the night shift at Bloomingdale's shipping center in Cheshire to pay her way through college. She has earned credits at Naugatuck Valley Community College and is currently enrolled at Lincoln Tech. She's studying to become a nurse.

The biggest hurdle the family has to cross is gaining the right to stay here. Belisca Destra is seeking political asylum to prevent his family from being deported.

He applied for political asylum in 2005 through a New Jersey immigration office, which referred the matter to an immigration judge.

Although the standard for obtaining political asylum is very high, the family's attorney, James A. Welcome, who specializes in immigration and criminal defense, believes they have "a very strong case."

"The judge will look to see if the person can establish that they've shown proof that they've experienced past persecution and/or that they have a fear of future persecution after being returned to their country," Welcome said.

The hearing is scheduled for Nov. 20 at Hartford Immigration Court. If the judge grants political asylum, it would put Belisca Destra and his family on a track to becoming citizens.

The dangers of living in Haiti extend to anyone residing in or visiting the country, but much of the violence is targeted toward pastors, who criminals believe have connections to U.S. missionaries, and therefore money. Pastors are often the victims of kidnappings, and families may have to pay a $25,000 ransom to free a relative.

Pastors like Belisca Destra also face persecution based on their specific ideological beliefs.

Members of Lavalas, a political party, believed Belisca Destra was a member of an opposing party, Mochrenah, because they knew he had friends in Mochrenah. The Lavalas are Roman Catholics and the Mochrenah are Pentecostals.

Belisca Destra says he is Protestant and was not a member of Mochrenah. Still, Lavalas targeted him based on the suspicion.

"They said if they find me they will kill me," Belisca Destra said.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide were members of Lavalas. Aristide was overthrown in February 2004 and has been forced into exile in South Africa, but Lavalas still wields significant political power in Haiti.

Dick Dill, pastor of the Bible Church in Waterbury who leads a prayer group with Belisca Destra, said he was concerned for the pastor's well-being if he is forced to return to his homeland.

"You step on the island and people know you're there," Dill said. "The minute he came back to Haiti they'd know he was there and he'd be a marked man."

Dill, who has been to Haiti 20 times, said that this summer, the Bible's Church's team that visits its sister church in Haiti had to cancel the trip because traveling there was deemed too dangerous.

In Haiti, 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 54 percent in abject poverty, according the CIA Factbook. The life expectancy is just 57.

"While we're complaining about prices at the pump, people there are complaining because they have no food, they have no money," Dill said.

Although the Destras miss their connections to Haiti, the family is trying to establish itself in Waterbury.

Belisca Destra and his wife are taking English classes through the city's adult education program. They hope to land better jobs once their English skills improve. Their children, who took English classes in Haiti, picked up the language quickly after moving here.

"With all the problems we have, we're happy," Gherdith Destra said.