Twelve thousand terrified Haitian refugees are being forcibly returned to their country by order of the President of the United States. They return to barren fields fertilized with blood. According to Amnesty International, the military bands now ravaging that poor country have already claimed more than 1,500 victims since the coup last fall that deposed the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The forced return of these refugees to an uncertain fate in a violent land is a moral outrage.
The United States limits the influx of Haitians in normal times. But today, Haiti, long the poorest country in the hemisphere, is the most violent. The armed bandits that pass for Haiti's military are terrorizing people, seeking to intimidate the "avalanche" of poor people and workers who swept Aristide into office against the wishes of the Haitian elite and the U.S. government.
The Bush Administration claims that the refugees are not eligible for political asylum. They cannot establish a reasonable fear of personal threat, so they are deemed economic refugees. Only targeted members of an elite could meet this standard. Working and poor people--threatened en masse by a terrorist military regime--are denied protection because of the very anonymity that comes from simply being a citizen, a farmer or a laborer.
This is a tragedy and a travesty. The Haitians did not flee until the coup displaced the leader they loved. They did not risk their lives in shaky boats on stormy seas until the tide of violence unleashed by the military threatened their families. The Haitians are prepared to return to their country when order returns, when Aristide is restored. To force them back now is to place them in the gun sights of a vengeful and deadly military.
President Bush has forcefully supported self-determination in Kuwait and in Venezuela, countries with a resource that Haiti lacks--oil. There is no greater diminishing of humanity than this valuing of things over people.
The President has abandoned the Haitians, but he is not alone. The injustice has been greeted with silence from most of the Democratic candidates for President. In the election season, when the air is filled with sound, what is left unsaid is often most revealing. Democratic presidential candidates bash Bush at every opportunity, as he well deserves. They criticize his travel schedule. They mock his offensive hand gestures in Australia. But this direct violation of human rights and fundamental decency passes by with little notice.
Why the silence? Apparently the Haitians are unmentionable because of their poverty and their race. Pat Buchanan, who is challenging Bush in the Republican Party, makes it explicit. He argues that we should stop "mongrelizing" America and limit the influx of any people of color, providing sanctuary only for whites from Europe. Buchanan is beyond the pale of decent opinion. But in a recession and an election year, he appeals to racial hatreds that many fear.
It is hard to escape the sense that the Democratic candidates' silence comes from a conscious strategy of distancing themselves from the concerns of people of color while appealing to a "forgotten middle class."
This is a dangerous strategy politically. If people can't see themselves as part of the mosaic, their concerns as part of the agenda, they drop out. When Democrats look for a big turnout from African-Americans and Latinos this fall, they may find their calls unanswered.
But moral bankruptcy is a greater danger. To lead this country in this time, a leader must make us better, not bitter. He or she must unite us across differences of race or religion or sex, bringing us together in a common mission. If something is morally wrong, it will not be politically right for long. Silence before injustice may be expedient in the moment, but its moral and political costs will be high in the hour.
There is still time to stop this injustice. Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) has introduced legislation in Congress to grant the Haitians "temporary protected status," suspending involuntary repatriation until the return of a democratically elected government in Haiti. The Democratic candidates should speak loudly for this legislation. The leaders of the House and Senate should act with dispatch to pass it for the President's signature.
Surely we cannot let the color of our neighbors' skin nor the poverty of their circumstance blind us to the justice of their claim. We will be judged, the Bible teaches, on how we treat the least of these.
These Haitians are not powerful, nor are they rich. They loom not large in the scheme of things. They simply offer a clear measure of what kind of people we are.