US Helps Cubans, Not Haitians

Refugee-rights advocats here describe the difference in the treatment of Haitian and Cuban refugees as `night and day'

IN April, 16 Haitian soccer players walked into the US Embassy in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and begged for political asylum.

The embassy refused their request. Frustrated, all but one of the young men decided to go back home, after they had thoroughly denounced their government in the press.

Last week, three members of a visiting Cuban wrestling team approached customs officials at Miami International Airport and requested asylum. Asylum was granted and within minutes they were hailing taxis to go to family members living in the city.

On May 23, trial will begin in United States District Court here of Woody Marc Edouard, a Haitian charged with air piracy. In March last year, the supporter of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide forced his way onto a Haitian DC-3 plane, put a revolver to the head of the pilot, and ordered the plane to fly to Miami. He said his life was in danger.

At Miami International Airport he surrendered to authorities. Prosecutors offered him a plea bargain to plead guilty on lesser charges and go to prison for seven years. He refused, insisting he had committed no crime.

If Mr. Edouard is found guilty of hijacking, he could go to jail for life.

Basilio Garcia Breto, pilot of a Cuban airliner en route to the Bahamas May 10, locked his copilot out of the cockpit, changed course, and flew to Miami. The following day, the Cuban American National Foundation presented him to the media.

Mr. Breto has not been charged for diverting the plane. Similarly, a Cuban pilot who diverted his airliner to Miami in December 1992 was not charged. The US attorney's office in Miami in that case concluded that a pilot cannot hijack his own plane.

`Night and day'

Refugee-rights advocates here describe the differences in the treatment of Haitian and Cuban refugees as ``night and day.'' And even though President Clinton changed US policy on May 7 to allow shipboard asylum hearings of Haitian boat people, the policy remains unimplemented. About 850 Haitians have been forcibly returned without interviews in the past week.

``The Cubans and the Haitians represent the extremes in our immigration policy,'' said Cheryl Little, a Haitian-refugee advocate and director of Florida Rural Legal Services. ``The Cubans are treated better than everyone else and the Haitians worse.''

The better treatment that Cuban refugees receive is based on the Cuban Adjustment Act passed by Congress in 1966. The law provides sanctuary for those fleeing the Communist government in Cuba. It is open-ended and has no expiration date.

On the other hand, Haitians fleeing repression have been systematically turned away. ``Despite the well-documented political oppression in Haiti over the past two decades, refugees from Haiti, the world's first black republic, have been singled out for special discriminatory treatment,'' Ms. Little wrote in the New York Law School Journal of Human Rights.

In September 1981, Haiti's dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, under pressure from the United States, entered into an agreement with the Reagan administration whereby the US Coast Guard would return to Haiti anyone fleeing for the US. President Aristide has given notice to Mr. Clinton that he intends to cancel that agreement when and if he reassumes office.

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service adopted a special ``Haitian Program'' in 1978 to settle and to deny as quickly as possible the asylum claims of Haitians, Little says. While other nationals are let go, Haitians are held in miserable conditions of confinement as a way of discouraging them from seeking asylum, she says.

Since the overthrow of Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, thousands of Haitians have been killed or maimed by the military, but not a single piece of legislation has been passed by Congress to provide even temporary protective status for Haitians fleeing repression as was done for Liberians, Kuwaitis, Lebanese, or Somalis, she says.

Equal compassion

Rep. Carrie Meek (D) of Florida introduced three pieces of legislation last year that call for treating Haitians with the same amount of compassion that refugees from other countries get. All are sitting at the House Judiciary Committee waiting for cosponsors to sign on.

One of the bills would make it easier for children of Haitians who are legal residents to become legal residents also without having to go back to Port-au-Prince, where many of them get stranded awaiting immigrant visas.

``These children have been forced to remain in Haiti for months, even years without their parents,'' Congresswoman Meek says.

Another would grant permanent residence status to Haitians who have been in the country since before Clinton became president. Without such protections many Haitian refugees cannot get permits to work and will stay behind in US society while others move ahead, refugee advocates say.

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