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Haitians Continue to Brave Seas Despite U.S. Barriers to Entry

Toughened policy aims to prevent a mass exodus driven by poverty and repression. More boat people use the Bahamas as a way station.

June 28, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

LEOGANE, Haiti — Scrawny from hunger and weathered by years in the sun, Antoine Mimi still hammers away on half a dozen wooden boats whose buyers have run out of money -- but not out of hope of escaping Haiti.

The chances of successfully navigating the 700-mile route to Florida are as slim as ever. Those who manage to evade sharks and smugglers face almost certain deportation when they get to the United States.

Since November, the U.S. Justice Department has been invoking "expedited removal proceedings" against Haitians who arrive without visas. Such handling allows authorities to jail and deport asylum seekers on the grounds that to do otherwise might encourage a mass exodus that would divert the attention and resources of the U.S. Coast Guard from its primary mission of guarding against terrorism.

The policy has largely succeeded in dissuading Haitians from taking the traditional route of arriving and seeking asylum through the courts. They can be sent back now without so much as a court hearing.

But it has done little to stem the outflow of desperate people. They have simply changed their routes and tactics. Instead of setting off for Florida, the same untold thousands now take to the seas headed for the Bahamas.

"People still want to go to America, but they realize they are risking their lives for nothing," said Mimi, 65, who wishes that he, too, had left when his health and chances of making a new life abroad were better.

"They don't mind being put in jail, but if they are going to be sent back here there's no point in trying," he added.

Instead, he and others who build crude boats on contract say Haitians bent on escape are pursuing a two-stage process: first to the Bahamas in whatever craft is at hand, then stealing into the United States a few months later with assistance from relatives and professional smugglers.

Stopping in the Bahamas, which is closer to U.S. shores, gives Haitians a chance to find work and earn money, contact relatives who are already in the United States and find more seaworthy vessels for the rest of the trip.

Coast Guard authorities in the Bahamas intercepted more than 4,200 Haitians last year, a 50% increase over 2001. Officials in the capital, Nassau, have complained that the numbers are skyrocketing this year and straining social services.

Thousands more escape overland to the Dominican Republic, where a marginally better economy offers some prospect of employment. But as with the Bahamas, the outflow is straining relations with an important neighbor and saddling a weak economy with social burdens previously borne by the affluent United States.

The U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Brian Dean Curran, acknowledges that Haitians are not treated the same as Cuban asylum seekers, who may stay in the United States if they reach its soil.

"Yes, we have a double standard, but it's legislated," Curran said, referring to the congressional actions that define fleeing Cubans as victims of communist repression. Even on a humanitarian level, Curran said, U.S. policy has to be one of unwavering dissuasion.

"If we changed policy and were perceived as being more open, that would send the wrong signal," he said. "Take that to its logical extreme -- are we going to open our borders to the whole country? Because opinion polls suggest about 80% would leave."

Washington is also concerned that terrorists could slip into the United States among the boat people.

Anneliese Reinemeyer, press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, said that although Haitians do not like the new U.S. policy, it has done little damage to official relations between the two countries.

"Haitian American groups find it far-fetched and ridiculous" that Haitian boat people are treated as a terrorist threat, Reinemeyer said.

"But this is a completely open playground for those who want to do harm. Anyone can get a passport here. There's just not a system set up to give us the security we need. Half the population doesn't even know when they were born."

Some opposition political figures in Port-au-Prince say they understand the tough U.S. position and blame the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for steering this country more deeply into despair.

"It's not just the poor who are fleeing. Everyone with money, education or skills wants to leave," said former President Leslie F. Manigat. "People don't have faith in the future of this country."

Some Haitians are insulted by the lack of influence their country has on Washington's policies.

"It's offensive. We're being told we are not political refugees when in fact there is a lot of repression here," said Hans Tippenhauer, an economist working with a newly formed alliance of business and social groups trying to break the Aristide government's monopoly on power.

One U.S. official who requested anonymity rejected that argument.

"There is a degree of political intimidation of journalists and the opposition, but those people get in their Mercedes and drive to the Dominican Republic," he said. "The people who get in boats are poor, desperate people fleeing poverty in the countryside."

He added, however, that until there is some glimmer of economic improvement, the search for a better life will continue and pressure will mount on Washington for a more equitable solution than steering the boat people elsewhere.

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