Battling for Boat People

TransAfrica head wants US to give more Haitians political asylum

IF racism were graded by degree, the worst kind, says Randall Robinson, is so institutionalized it goes unnoticed.

The man who led a civil disobedience campaign that made South Africa and Nelson Mandela a domestic issue in the United States is now trying to put Haiti on the map of US conscience.

Chances are that US residents don't even know where Haiti is, let alone what US policy is toward that black Caribbean country.

And that's just Mr. Robinson's point. You won't notice the racism in US treatment of Haiti if you don't notice the country in the first place.

In a Monitor interview, Robinson, executive director the African and Caribbean lobby TransAfrica, says he believes US policy to snatch Haitian boat people from the high seas and send them back without a hearing is a racist policy. It drives home the importance and difficulty of raising the collective US conscience on global civil rights, he says.

"In one part [of the sea off Florida], the Coast Guard is taking people back to Port-au-Prince; in another, a boat from the Coast Guard is picking up Cubans out of the sea and bringing them back to Miami. How do we explain this?" he asks.

The US does not automatically return refugees of any nationality except Haitians to the country they are fleeing, Robinson explains.

"One is hard put to find any other explanation for these wide disparities except for race," he says of the May 24 presidential order suspending all hearings for Haitians found at sea.

TransAfrica began a public protest of the policy last week, drawing between 1,000 and 2,000 demonstrators. More than 100 people were arrested, along with Robinson, for blocking traffic in front of the White House.

The US maintains that most Haitian boat people are fleeing economic, not political, hardship and that Haitians can seek asylum through the US embassy in Port-au Prince.

US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesman Duke Austin counters Robinson's claim of racism by noting that nearly 11,000 of the 38,000 Haitians interdicted between September - when the democratically elected president was ousted in a military coup - and May were allowed to enter the US to pursue asylum claims. He says that during the 1980s, Haiti ranked 13th - out of proportion to its size - in the number of legal immigrants to the US, with 138,000.

It is true that Haitians traditionally have a low rate of political asylum approval, says Mr. Austin. This is because they cannot prove, by INS standards, a well-founded proof of political persecution.

Further, the State Department says US policy aims to save lives by discouraging Haitians from taking to unseaworthy boats.

Under US and United Nations mandates, anyone claiming to be a refugee from political persecution is supposed to have a hearing. The US provided those hearings until President Bush's order, allowing about 11,000 Haitians, out of the tide of 38,000 in the past year, to enter the US to pursue asylum claims.

"One can then extrapolate that of all the people who have been interdicted after the presidential order, about a third would also be eligible to pursue a claim in the United States for asylum," says Robinson.

People being turned back today who might have ordinarily qualified to enter the US are Robinson's focus. Their fate is perhaps a more complex issue for Americans to understand than apartheid was, he observes.

Because of their "global illiteracy," Americans tend to think international problems "begin and end with the telecast" of them, and that can trivialize national debate, says Robinson.

The main rule of the game, he says, is that television is the way to reach the millions of people in th US needed to help create the "critical mass" awareness of an issue that will pressure politicians to act on it.

It worked in unexpected ways for apartheid. After 20 lonely years of lobbying for US sanctions against South African apartheid, Robinson suddenly became a media star in November 1984 when he was arrested for refusing to leave the South African embassy here. He attributes the sudden media interest to nothing more than a "slow news day" before Thanksgiving.

"When we started this, nobody knew who Nelson Mandela was," he says. But for more than a year after his arrest there were daily demonstrations and arrests of a parade of Hollywood and political glitterati, not to mention hundreds of unknowns too.

The result: Congress enacted - in a presidential veto override - US sanctions against South Africa.

TransAfrica is now "puzzling" through how it can build momentum for interest in Haiti, says Robinson.

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