PRESIDENT-ELECT Clinton promised during his campaign to change the Bush administration policy that summarily returns Haitian boat people to their Caribbean nation without immigration hearings.
Recent reports show that many Haitians are taking Mr. Clinton at his word and preparing boats for post-inauguration voyages to the United States - suggesting that his promise may have done more to spark the hopes of desperate Haitians than it did to win votes at home on an issue few Americans are familiar with.
Already since Clinton's November election, more than 1,200 Haitians have been picked up by the US Coast Guard - up from a trickle in the months since President Bush declared the boat people to be economic rather than political refugees.
The Clinton foreign-affairs transition team is now scrambling to reconcile the president-elect's political promise with diplomatic reality.
The threat of a large influx of Haitians into Florida has accelerated the need for a negotiated settlement between feuding Haitian politicians and military leaders, says Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs and visited Haiti last month.
Indeed, all experts on Haiti say the ultimate solution to the immigration threat is a political agreement that would bring stability to Haiti. That, in turn, would allow an end to an economically devastating embargo enacted after the military overthrew democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide last year.
An Organization of American States-brokered political agreement reached in February was never honored. President Aristide and his representatives consistently have said that he is unwilling to deal with either the military leader who ousted him or de facto civilian Prime Minister Marc Bazin.
In an "evolution of thinking about Haiti," Mr. Torricelli and others on Capitol Hill have moved away from previous unconditional support of Aristide's return to power. One State Department official explains that there is a growing consensus that Aristide will have to cooperate and sit for discussions with those who ousted him or risk being "cut out of the deal."
Ironically, observers say, a Democratic administration should have been a bright prospect for stronger US support for Aristide's return to power. But the reverse has happened. Clinton's campaign promise was based on a more liberal human rights philosophy than Mr. Bush's, but it backfired in a way that appears to make avoiding a refugee crisis the overriding concern in a quick settlement.
The Clinton transition team is doing a "bottom up" review of all options on the refugee issue, those familiar with the situation say. Those options basically include conducting immigration hearings in camps in third countries or at the US military base at Guantanamo, Cuba, or aboard Coast Guard cutters that intercept the rickety boats at sea.
Most options, Democrats and Republicans agree, were tried and abandoned for good reason as the Bush administration struggled to contain the tide of 40,000 boat people that have left Haiti since Aristide's ouster. Only two nations consented to take a handful of refugees. Guantanamo could not house all the Haitians who were coming, and legal challenges to hearings aboard Coast Guard ships suggested that the hearings were too hasty.
Meanwhile, Clinton has revised his May campaign promise of "temporary asylum" to fleeing Haitians. He now says he did not mean that mass numbers of Haitians would actually be allowed to land on US shores. Rather they would be given some form of hearing somewhere else, he says. But Clinton continues to stress that his policy will be different from Bush's.
US State Department officials and other Haitian experts say they are concerned that desperate Haitians see an opportunity to test this difference between Clinton and Bush.