US Policy on Boat People Fleeing Haiti Is Sound

NEITHER President Bush's policy toward fleeing Haitians, nor President Clinton's continuation of it, is a reversal of traditional American immigration hospitality. Their attitude is neither mean-spirited nor nativist. In fact, Haiti's exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, continues to urge citizens not to leave, whether for America or elsewhere.

If anything, Haitians are victims of their own government's corruption and poverty, not of genocide or racism. Like countless other would-be immigrants they want a better way of life in America. That is the chief reason for the more than 1,000 boats being built to bring over more than 100,000 people.

Historically, America's doors were never open to all who wished to enter, except when Indians were in the majority and failed to unite to prevent European illegals from taking over their lands - and eventually their independence. Each of the early invaders - the Spanish, Dutch, English and French - targeted some people for exclusion, such as Catholics, Quakers, Lutherans, Baptists, and Jews.

Nevertheless, over the years, America came to be the land of choice for immigrants the world over, so that today more of them - legal and illegal - enter each year than to all other countries of the world combined. In fact, were the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to evaporate, their floor beds would be lined with people, carts and cars heading here. In the last decade alone, some 9 million people entered legally.

While in the past the largest percentages of immigrants came from Europe, today almost half come from Latin American and the Caribbean, and a quarter from Asia.

As for Haitians, they have been legally and illegally entering the country long before President Aristide was overthrown. Haiti today ranks fifth among all the countries from which immigrants come; close to a half-million Haitians live in New York City.

No, they are not being singled out for exclusion. Those caught at sea trying to enter illegally are being returned home and told to apply for admission like aspiring immigrants from other countries, unless, of course, they are escaping political persecution. President Clinton has said he will make it easier for them to apply while in Haiti.

To claim that the tens of thousands of Haitians trying to sail to our shores are political refugees is patently absurd and evidentially improbable. If they were that desperate for political freedom, they would be heading toward nearer lands of sanctuary, such as next-door Santo Domingo, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico - or even to South and Central America, which have always been friendly to political refugees.

This is not to gainsay the plight of Haitians. Haiti is the second oldest republic in the Western Hemisphere, born of a black slave rebellion against French rule in the early 1800s. However, tyranny rather than democracy has been the prevailing pattern of government.

When America did occupy the country from 1915 to 1934 to restore order and protect our economic interests, it was severely criticized by island nationalists and American minority leaders, though today many might welcome an American invasion.

In fact, a new kind of American manifest destiny seems to be in the making, not at the behest of nativists who believe the nation's role is to civilize lesser peoples, but of foreigners themselves who want the Unites States to police, if not underwrite, their country's identity and personal political well-being.

Moreover, it is argued that America has a sacred obligation to admit anyone who wants to come here, as well as to grant legal and illegal immigrants federal and state benefits, which prior generations of immigrants never received.

There are limits to how many immigrants American could admit, and under what conditions. And it is no moral or humanitarian sin - or violation of historical tradition - to say so and to insist upon enforcement of immigration regulations, which at their worst are more liberal than those of any other country in the world.

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