They left Haiti -- the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere -- on rickety boats launched across the Gulf Stream. Most were headed for Florida, but accident, dishonest boat captains, or the desire to earn money for the further trip landed them in this long island chain.
Now, the 25,000 to 40,000 Haitians estimated to be living illegally in the Bahamas have been ordered out. If large-scale arrests begin to occur, United States authorities are concerned that many of these Haitians will head for south Florida.
Florida is especially wary. In 1980, an influx of 25,000 Haitians who virtually washed up onto the beaches and more than 100,000 Cubans boatlifted from Mariel cost the state $150 million more than the federal aid it received.
Florida Gov. Bob Graham has requested this month that Secretary of State George P. Shultz help prevent a new influx from the Bahamas.
In Miami, Dade County planning department's Oliver Kerr notes, ``One of the things that we learned in dealing with refugee flows is not to react too quickly or with alarm to news of large hordes waiting to come ashore.''
Still, Nancy Wittenberg, Florida's state refugee coordinator, says,``Chances are that should a roundup occur, even of just a few people here and there, it will start a panic,'' leading Haitians to flee the Bahamas.
``There is an atmosphere of fear, but it is not panic,'' says the Rev. Max Dominique, a Roman Catholic clergyman in Freeport, Bahamas, and a Haitian. Strong talk from the Bahamian government about the ``Haitian problem,'' he says, has sparked hostility among some Bahamians, who have beaten some Haitians. On the rural side of New Providence Island, opposite Nassau, Haitians are known to hide from strangers.
The US Coast Guard, which regularly intercepts Haitians bound for Florida, is skeptical of a major exodus onto Florida beaches. Rather, the traffic may rise in illegal immigration through visa violations, stowing away, or falsifying crew papers, officials say.
Haitians have been fleeing Haiti for decades now. The country is desperately poor and overpopulated and infamous for the blatant corruption of the government, run by President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier. Haitians are mostly rural people, and their efforts to eke more food from the land are turning more of the nation into desert.
So many Haitians pay hundreds of dollars or more to boat captains to take them to the US. Some have made it to Florida, a few land in Cuba and are sent on, most land in the Bahamas. The boats are generally overcrowded and unseaworthy, their captains often unscrupulous. The passengers who make it to land periodically report that the crew threw fellow passengers overboard to lighten the vessel or to make provisions last.
Since 1981, the US Coast Guard has put a cutter on patrol in the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba to cut off Haitian migration. This patrol, plus a part-time patrol between the Bahamas and Florida, has cut the flow to a trickle.
But thousands of Haitians had already made it to the Bahamas by 1981 -- enough so that Bahamian Minister of National Security Loftus Roker is speaking this month of illegal immigration ``taking over'' the Bahamas in a ``modern-day colonialism.''
The 25,000 to 40,000 Haitians in the Bahamas compare to 230,000 Bahamians. The Haitians are largely of an age for having children and come from a country with health problems, so they are a heavy burden on Bahamian social services.
This fall, the Bahamas signed a treaty with Haiti to repatriate 300 Haitians a month. The Bahamas also passed a law allowing some Haitians amnesty and all others to register for deportation. Mr. Roker threatened mass arrests of those who failed to register.
The treaty is still fuzzy on some key details, such as who pays to send 300 Haitians a month to Haiti. No mass roundups have yet occurred. And it is not clear that Bahamian agriculture, a major industry on many islands, could thrive without Haitian field labor. The Haitians are eager and hardworking employees who generally work low-paying, low-status jobs, according to Neil Sealey, a sociologist at the College of the Bahamas.
``A lot of them live far worse than any Bahamian would ever live in,'' says Bishop Lawrence Burke of Nassau. Some 80 percent of the Haitians are at least nominally Roman Catholic, and the bishop has written Mr. Roker asking more compassionate treatment of the Haitians. ``These people are illegal, but they're human.''