New Journey Begins for 52 Evacuated Haitian Orphans
By Steve Sapp and Rick Pauza, OPA
The story of 52 Haitian orphans trying to evacuate the earthquake-devastated island nation captivated the world for several days. It also captivated Customs and Border protection officers at three ports who waited anxiously to process their arrivals over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.
The children, most already in adoption proceedings with families in the U.S., were granted humanitarian paroles by CBP in collaboration with Citizenship and Immigration Services. This status expedited the children's arrival to their adoptive families, but it also assured them refuge from Haiti's dire conditions.
Their journey to Pittsburgh started as they boarded a flight in Port-au-Prince around 11 p.m. on Jan. 18, but in reality, their journey started on the afternoon of January 12. That was when a 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and leveled most city structures, including the children's BRESMA orphanage.
Two groups of people, one operating the BRESMA orphanage and one in Pittsburgh advocating on behalf of the adoptive parents, initiated the evacuation with both the Haitian and U.S. governments.
A U.S. delegation led by Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell and U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA), and the Haiti orphans, who reportedly ranged in age from 11 months to 12 years-old, arrived to Orlando-Sanford International Airport around 2 a.m. aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane.
After a quick muster with last minute instructions, CBP officers at Orland-Sanford fanned out to their inspection booths while a second team approached the plane. CBP officers facilitated the processing of Haitian orphans and their caregivers in the wee hours of the morning.
"Our officers really stepped up to the plate on this flight, processing 52 Haitian orphans who mostly slept in their caregivers' arms," said Eduardo Oliveros, area port director, Orlando. "I commend our officers for their efficiency in processing the parole paperwork for the orphans who arrived with scant adoption documentation, and for their professionalism in welcoming these weary passengers who still had yet to fly to Pennsylvania."
The orphans, their caregivers and the Pennsylvania delegation departed aboard a charter flight at about 6:15 a.m., and touched down under intense news media glare at Pittsburgh International Airport at about 9:30 a.m.
The flight taxied under escort by CBP officers in marked vehicles to a site adjacent to CBP's Centralized Examination Station. After deplaning before a warm crowd, the orphans boarded buses to complete medical examinations at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.
"Some of the medical authorities on site were still under the impression that CBP would be boarding the plane first, but we explained the situation to them so there was no delay in medical treatment reaching the orphans," said Joseph Klaus, CBP port director for the Port of Pittsburgh.
The landing in Pittsburgh signified the end of an expedited journey out of Haiti for these 52 Haitian orphans, but it also signaled the start of another journey - one with their adoptive families in the United States.