Detention of Haitian refugees stirs debate

Latest illegal boatload faces a legal climate very different from Cubans.

Around the world emotions are stirred by images of people putting themselves in danger's way to reach a better land – a land holding out hope of freedom and prosperity.

Such a scenario is just what happened when dozens of Haitians, many dressed in their Sunday best, jumped overboard just off the shores of Miami last week in a frantic effort to reach America. The televised images of would-be immigrants tumbling over a concrete barrier and desperately trying to hitch rides on the Rickenbacker Causeway evoked sympathy from many ordinary Americans.

For Haitian activists and immigration advocates, the images stirred emotions for another reason as well: This event may be a key test of the Bush administration's recently retooled approach to handling Haitian refugees.

In virtually all refugee cases – with the well-known exception of Cuban ones – aliens are deported unless they apply for political asylum. To start that process, they must demonstrate a "credible fear" of persecution were they to be repatriated. If they prove this, asylum seekers are routinely released and given about a year to prepare their asylum cases.

Different standard

But not Haitians. Last December, after all but two of a boatload of 187 Haitians who landed in Miami passed their credible-fear interview, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) continued to hold them in detention. Since then, a select few have been paroled, and about 50 remain in detention – but the vast majority have been deported.

Now, as signs point to a repeat of this approach with more than 200 new refugees, Miami's immigrant community is feeling heartache. Some people have questioned why Haitians are treated so differently – especially when compared with Cubans, who, under a 1966 law, are virtually entitled to legal residency within a year if they reach shore.

"Why aren't Haitians entitled to the same rights as others?" says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "Is it because they aren't from a Communist country but a poor black one? And that Haitians in the United States don't have any political clout?"

Government officials say that the policy change was based on well-founded intelligence in Haiti of a potential mass exodus. Indeed, huge exoduses have occurred before, especially during periods of extreme political repression. For example, tens of thousands of Haitians took to the high seas during the 1991-94 military de facto government.

So far, however, there doesn't appear to be a mass exodus in the works. In fact, statistics indicate that the number of Haitians trying to reach America is on the decline. In 2000, 530 Haitians reached US shores, 405 arrived in 2001, and 214 so far this year, according to the INS. The Coast Guard, furthermore, reports that number interdicted by their personnel was 1,394 in 2000, 1,956 in 2001, and 657 so far this year.

Whatever the numbers, two things remain constant: The voyages are almost always attempted in unseaworthy boats, yet even in sturdy vessels the course between Haiti and Florida can be treacherous. These factors, say officials, contributed to the decision to change policy.

"Our current policy is solely designed to prevent loss of life caused by migrants attempting to make dangerous water crossings in treacherous seas on unsafe vessels," says Karen Kraufhaar, INS press officer.

A campaign issue

The scrutiny of the US government's approach to Haitians couldn't come at a worse time for Jeb Bush, whose campaign for reelection as Florida's governor has been harder than expected. Until last week's boatload of refugees, he had said little about the issue. Now he says the policy is unfair, as Democrats and scores of Haitian activists demand that he call his brother and secure the release of the Haitians.

"If people have a well-founded fear of persecution, they should be released into the community," he said last week at a campaign event.

At the end of last week, a diverse group of concerned officials and community members held a press conference to call on President Bush to sign an executive order asking for the Haitians' release. Federal officials are reportedly considering options that would ultimately grant parole to some of the Haitian refugees, but no definite moves have been made.

Ms. Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center says the courts may prove to be instrumental: "INS is standing firm in its position not to release the Haitians, but the immigration judges can now do the right thing."

Some immigration experts say the US government could stop almost all the migration efforts by revisiting other aspects of its relationship to Haiti – namely, its stance on economic aid.

Currently, tens of millions of international dollars have been withheld from the Haitian government, in part because of questions regarding its elections in 2000. While critics cry corruption, supporters of the government say it is being strangled.

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