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Debate Renewed Over Treatment of Haitians

A policy change means recent arrivals are incarcerated while claims are processed.

November 02, 2002|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI -- The mad dash of scores of Haitians to reach America's shores this week has rekindled intense debate about the new -- many say discriminatory -- treatment that migrants from the Caribbean island nation receive.

Since December, Haitians who illegally enter the United States and request asylum are routinely incarcerated while their claims are processed -- the only nationality that is detained as a matter of Bush administration policy, critics say.

"It's racist, it's immoral, it's an abomination if you ask me," said state Rep. Phillip J. Brutus (D-North Miami), a Haitian American member of the Florida Legislature.

"The only crime these people have committed is to try to escape for their lives, to come to a country where there is a promise of freedom," said Joseph Bapthol, chief operating officer at the Haitian American Foundation, a Miami-based health and social service organization. "I really think immigration policy should be uniform for anyone, regardless of where they come from."

On Tuesday, as television transmitted images live throughout the country, a ramshackle wooden cargo ship crammed with migrants beached near Miami's Rickenbacker Causeway, and the passengers waded and swam to the busy roadway.

One hundred fifty adult male Haitians who were apprehended by police are being held at the Krome Avenue detention center west of Miami, while 35 women and 26 children were being housed in a hotel, said Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the local office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. An additional 21 people were plucked from the sea by the Coast Guard.

"The detainees' needs are being met," Gonzalez said. "Everyone is in real good condition and there are no medical issues at this point."

"These individuals are being treated fairly, appropriately and humanely," Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said in a written statement.

However, amid indications that the Haitians might languish in detention for months, their fate quickly became an issue in the last days of Florida's gubernatorial election campaign. Democrat Bill McBride, who needs a heavy turnout Tuesday among African American voters to have a hope of beating Gov. Jeb Bush, accused the Republican incumbent of not doing enough to help Haitian migrants.

"The governor should have been out in front on this, using his power and the bully pulpit," McBride told community leaders in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood Thursday.

The same day, Bush said that, although he doesn't have a "magic wand" to alter policies of his older brother, President Bush, "I can guarantee you I have a lot more influence on the White House and the administration than Bill McBride."

In a policy switch that is still shrouded in mystery, the Bush administration in December ordered Haitians landing without documents to be detained while immigration officials process their asylum claims or order them deported. Foreigners from other countries are customarily released into the custody of family members and social service organizations, said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami.

"Historically the Haitians have been singled out for special discriminatory treatment, and it continues to this day," said Little, whose organization filed suit against the policy in March.

According to the bipartisan state legislative caucus of Miami-Dade County, 96% of Haitians arriving illegally were being released as of November 1991, but the rate plummeted to 6% by the end of last year.

"It is unconceivable for these men, women and children who endured eight days of life-threatening waters aboard a rickety boat not [to] be given the same opportunity afforded my Cuban brothers and sisters to apply for political asylum," said Rene Garcia, incoming Republican chairman of the legislative delegation, of the Haitians who landed Tuesday.

Last month, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who chairs a Senate subcommittee on immigration, held a hearing on the new policy toward Haitian refugees and was frustrated by the Bush administration's lack of a response.

"We couldn't get anyone to take responsibility for that decision to treat the Haitians differently," said Stephanie Cutter, Kennedy's spokeswoman.

Asked for details about the policy, Jorge Martinez, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, would say only that a statement was being prepared.

In response to the lawsuit filed by Little's group, Peter Michael Becraft, acting deputy director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said in an affidavit in March that the new approach was designed to deter a "mass migration" of Haitians by sea, which could lead to the deaths of many by drowning, starvation or thirst.

"It is simply biased and even racist because when the Cubans come, they receive them as people coming to heaven," countered Henry Frank, executive director of the Haitian Centers Council, a social services organization based in Brooklyn, N.Y. "But when the Haitians come, they give them hell."

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