WITH the planned ouster of Haiti's top military officers and the return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide expected within the next month, the political winds have shifted dramatically for thousands of Haitians hoping to receive political asylum in the US.
According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), approximately 13,500 Haitians in the US are waiting to hear whether they will be granted political asylum. The basis for most claims: As Aristide supporters in Haiti, they fear persecution or harm from military or paramilitary forces.
Their claims of asylum may no longer be judged valid by US officials if there is a significant decrease in political violence in Haiti. To be granted asylum, refugees must show they have a ``well-founded fear of persecution.''
``If the Haitian government changes dramatically, and the military is no longer going to be targeting Aristide supporters, the genus behind the claims is somewhat diluted,'' says Lori Scialabba, deputy general counsel to the INS in Washington.
The continuing violence in Haiti, however, has made the situation far from clear cut.
Eric Cauller, head of the INS's asylum office in Florida, says, ``nothing has changed yet in Haiti, and this agreement notwithstanding, it's not clear that the violence will end. So until we actually see changes occurring there, we won't make any changes in our decisions.''
Refugee advocates such as Steve Forester, lead attorney for Miami's Haitian Refugee Center, agree. ``Without dismantling the military and violent political groups like FRAPH [Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti],'' Mr. Forester warns, ``many of the same human rights violations may persist.''
In the past, INS has used a change in home-country government as a reason to deny asylum requests. Thousands of Haitian claims were rejected after the 1986 ouster of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and the military officers who succeeded him. Despite widespread reports that Mr. Duvalier's brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoutes, was never deactivated, the US claimed Haitians had nothing to fear.
That is what worries Haitians like Antoine Ladouceur, an asylum seeker from the Haitian coastal town of Leogane. Nearly two years ago, Mr. Ladouceur sailed from Haiti to Florida with 27 other people on a 15-foot sailboat.
At a recent asylum hearing before US Immigration Judge Keith Williams, he described how his father was shot dead by military troops during a pro-Aristide rally following the coup. Ladouceur said he was then jailed and beaten for posting pictures of Aristide on the outside of his house.
``The harassment continued even after I was released from prison,'' he testified. ``After I participated in several demonstrations against the military government, they shot at my house and threatened me and my family. There was no way I could stay in Haiti.'' Ladouceur said he still fears going back to Haiti. ``As long as the military continues to wield weapons and power, I am not safe in Leogane,'' he pleaded. ``They know my name, and they know I have fled.''
While many immigration judges in Miami are delaying their asylum decisions to see if any significant change occurs in Haiti, Judge Williams will not postpone his.
``The situation in Haiti is in flux, but it will always be uncertain,'' Williams said during the hearing. ``All the might of the US military won't change a thing in Haiti and I'm not naive enough to believe that everything will be rosy there anytime soon.''
President Aristide's return should also lead to the eventual shutdown of the Haitian refugee camps at the US Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Once democracy is restored in Haiti, the United States expects the 14,000 detained Haitians to return home.
A US Coast Guard cutter carrying 221 Haitians who have agreed to voluntarily leave Guantanamo and return home was schedule to arrive in Haiti yesterday. More voluntary returns are expected.
But Jean Alcimbaert, an elected leader of the Haitians in Guantanamo, said in a telephone interview that many refugees are concerned about their safety and are not ready to return home.
``People in the camps don't want to go back until Aristide comes back and the military is disarmed,'' Mr. Alcimbaert says. ``They're still afraid of going back to Haiti, having seen the TV footage of the beatings.''