US. citizens Carmel, Maude and Emmanuela Ciceron are finally returning home to New York after 26 years in Haiti.
Tucsonan Nanette Longchamp has been working with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti and Congressman Raúl Grijalva's office since 2004 to help the three siblings return to the United States. In 1984, their father, Jean Berrier Ciceron, put the three sisters and their mother on a plane from New York City to his home country of Haiti, and apparently never contacted them again.
Maude was born in 1976, Carmel in 1978, and Emmanuela in 1981—all in New York City. However, they could not prove they were U.S. citizens, and were therefore left in limbo—until last month, when the sisters were told by staff at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince that U.S. State Department officials had discovered passport applications for the two oldest siblings, filed by their father before he sent them to Haiti. (See "Abandoned Citizens," March 11, 2010.)
Longchamp says she is relieved, but wonders why it took the State Department six years to finally find the passport applications.
"They've been through so much. Since the earthquake, they've been living in tents in the back of my mother's house. So much could have been different for them if (officials had) recognized these girls are citizens when I first started working with the State Department," Longchamp says.
Longchamp met one of the sisters in 2003 when she was visiting her mother in Port-au-Prince. When she returned home to Tucson, she thought about their story; after several months, she realized she needed to help them. She says the sisters had a bag full of school documents, but they had no birth certificates or passports to prove they were born in New York.
In 2004, Longchamp had the sisters sign a power-of-attorney, allowing her to get documents on their behalf. She was able to retrieve birth certificates for all three sisters, but it wasn't enough: The State Department told Longchamp they needed progression photos that showed the siblings aging over the last 26 years.
Longchamp told the Tucson Weekly in March that she first talked to embassy officials right after Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. She was told there were 90 similar cases of people trying to re-enter the U.S.—and that it would be easier if the sisters didn't look so Haitian and poor.
Although the State Department found only passport applications for Maude and Carmel, the two oldest sisters, Longchamp says she feels lucky that they finally accepted Emmanuela's birth certificate, with her infant foot prints, as proof of her citizenship. But the news is not all happy: As the sisters prepare to leave Haiti, Longchamp says, the State Department told them they'll have to leave their young children behind for a year.
Emmanuela's only child was born on Jan. 25, not quite two weeks after the deadly earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti.
"There is a certain amount of time, if you have a child born outside the U.S., that you have to register them as citizens, but that time frame has passed," Longchamp explains. Therefore, the sisters were told that they have to be on U.S. soil for a year in order to petition for their children to join them.
Maude doesn't have children; Carmel has three. Longchamp says she thinks those children are 10, 5 and about 2 or 3 years old.
"The fact is, the State Department could have found out about the passport applications earlier. If they had, I believe that two or three of these kids would not have been born in Haiti—if (the State Department) had done their job," Longchamp says.
With the sisters' citizenship issue resolved, Longchamp now worries about their kids. Thousands of kids have been abandoned or orphaned in Haiti due to the earthquake and abject poverty.
"I want to make sure that if the embassy insists their young children can't go with them, that, at least, the embassy takes fingerprints, photos and DNA of the kids. We now know that being left in a country means you can lose your American citizenship. Their mothers were lost. I don't want these kids to be lost, too," she says.
In March, the Weekly talked to Rosemary Macray, media unit chief with the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. At the time Macray, was unable to speak specifically about the sisters, but she did confirm that in cases such as these, the women would need progression photos to prove their identities.
The Weekly called Macray last week to ask about the State Department's recent discovery of the Ciceron sisters' passport applications and the fate of their children, but she did not return our calls.
"To me, (their children staying behind is) almost like a second wave of tragedy," Longchamp says. "When people talk about Haiti, they usually preface that it's the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haitians aren't always looked at as human beings, so when three women go to the embassy to be recognized as U.S. citizens, it is treated as if it is a fantastical story. That was the first tragedy."
To prepare them for New York, Longchamp is contacting different organizations in New York City that work with Haitian refugees. She has also contacted her own family members in New York who are willing to help the sisters find housing, jobs and English classes.
She also expects that the sisters will want to try to talk to their father, who continues to live in the New York City area, according to Longchamp's research.
"I will give them his address and phone number," Longchamp says. "He will have to answer to them—at least tell them why he sent them back to Haiti without support, never to talk to them again."