Haitian Special Olympics delegates may have defected, but what does it mean?

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — Two days after six Haitian Special Olympics delegates – including one athlete with intellectual disabilities – turned in their key cards and vanished from their hotel, their motivations and possible destination remain unclear.


Osceola County deputies have remained tight-lipped, dismissing inquiries by saying the investigation was still active. Deputies also haven’t released any videos or photos of the delegates leaving their hotel or Disney property. It’s unknown whether they boarded a bus or got into a waiting car, and since they left their belongings behind, it’s also unknown who may be helping them.

One possibility is that the delegates are choosing to defect, avoiding their return to Haiti, which has been rocked by economic, social and political turmoil for years. Observers on the ground say gangs routinely battle for control of territory against the weak central government.

READ: 5 of 6 people missing from Haiti delegation participating in Special Olympics USA Games not athletes

Defections are relatively common. The latest to make waves happened at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, when a Belarusian sprinter fled to Poland after criticizing her coaches. However, they’re much less routine for the Special Olympics, which focuses on ability and togetherness as much as competition.

“It’s always an opportunity,” immigration attorney Nayef Mubarak said.

If defection is the case here, Mubarak said the Haitians’ visas likely give them six months in the United States. The clock to request asylum lasts for 12 months after they arrive. All they’d have to do, he said, is mail a form to the U.S. government detailing their request and eventually show up at an immigration center for a background check.

READ: 2022 Special Olympics USA Games underway in Orlando

“They don’t need very much to move forward with the application,” Mubarak explained.

Whether their request would be granted is another matter. The attorney said asylum seekers must prove they’d be persecuted upon return to their home country. It’s an intentionally high bar and, since the government permitted them to travel to the U.S. to compete, may be even more difficult to achieve in this instance.

READ: How hundreds of health care workers are keeping athletes safe at Special Olympics USA Games

“If you’re not successful in your asylum claim, you will have an order of removal — more commonly known as a deportation order,” Mubarak said.

The delegates could be granted further reprieve if the Biden administration extends and expands Temporary Protected Status to Haitians living in the U.S. because of the chaos in that country. Currently, TPS is only granted to Haitians in the U.S. since August 2021. It expires February 2023.

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Adam Poulisse, WFTV.com

Adam Poulisse joined WFTV in November 2019.

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