WASHINGTON — FOURTEEN Haitian refugees arrived in Miami on June 21, the last of a group freed from a United States holding compound in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by a federal court order. But on the same day, the US Supreme Court appeared to slam the door on other potential Haitian boat people.
The high court ruled 8 to 1 that the Coast Guard can continue intercepting Haitian refugees without offering them a chance to seek asylum in the US. President Bush instituted that policy in response to the massive number of migrants after the ouster of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991.
Bill Clinton criticized the Bush policy as "cruel" during last year's campaign, but once in office, he ordered the Coast Guard to continue repatriation. To do otherwise, he argues, would encourage more Haitians to risk their lives by setting out for the US on leaky rafts.
Several groups representing refugees challenged the policy in court, arguing that it violates the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. This law states that aliens cannot be deported if their "life or freedom would be threatened ... on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
Many of the boat people say they have been persecuted by Haiti's military regime because they are supporters of President Aristide. The Haitian government has been condemned for human-rights violations by the State Department and the United Nations.
The Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled against the interception policy. Justice Harry Blackmun, the most liberal member of the Supreme Court, backed that verdict. "The terms [of the law] are unambiguous," he wrote. "Vulnerable refugees shall not be returned."
But writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens declared that US immigration law does not apply to people outside US borders. Justice Stevens said the ruling was not an endorsement of US actions, only a determination that they are not illegal.
Advocates on behalf of the Haitians were quick to argue that the US policy may be legal, but it is still immoral. "It's sad to see the Statue of Liberty get a sock in the eye," says Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York.
Steve Forester, an attorney with the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami, adds that many of those returned to Haiti "undoubtedly come into harm's way" from the military regime.
On the other side of the issue, the Bush and Clinton administrations have said the US does not have the resources to process a flood of asylum requests. In the 10 years before the 1991 military coup, 25,000 Haitian migrants were intercepted. That number soared to about 38,000 people the first eight months after the coup.
That inflow overwhelmed the US processing facility at Guantanamo Bay and led the Bush administration to start returning almost all boat people to Haiti. A handful of Haitian asylum-seekers diagnosed as having the HIV virus remained at Guantanamo for two years until a federal district court ruled June 8 that the compound had to be shut down.
The policy of returning Haitians has been effective. Almost no boat people have been intercepted by the Coast Guard since it went into effect in May 1992.
But the repatriations have been politically embarrassing for Clinton, who has taken heat for not carrying out a campaign pledge to reverse the Bush policy.
The Clinton administration has appeared eager to end the problem by forcing the military regime out of power. The US recently froze the assets of some regime supporters and backed a move in the UN Security Council to impose a worldwide embargo of oil, weapons, and most other goods on Haiti. The sanctions are to take effect June 23, if progress is not made in the negotiations with UN and US representatives.