Detention of Haitian Refugees Stirs Debate ; Latest Illegal Boatload Faces a Legal Climate Very Different from Cubans

Article excerpt

Around the world emotions are stirred by images of people putting themselves in danger's way to reach a better land - a land holding out hope of freedom and prosperity.

Such a scenario is just what happened when dozens of Haitians, many dressed in their Sunday best, jumped overboard just off the shores of Miami last week in a frantic effort to reach America. The televised images of would-be immigrants tumbling over a concrete barrier and desperately trying to hitch rides on the Rickenbacker Causeway evoked sympathy from many ordinary Americans.

For Haitian activists and immigration advocates, the images stirred emotions for another reason as well: This event may be a key test of the Bush administration's recently retooled approach to handling Haitian refugees.

In virtually all refugee cases - with the well-known exception of Cuban ones - aliens are deported unless they apply for political asylum. To start that process, they must demonstrate a "credible fear" of persecution were they to be repatriated. If they prove this, asylum seekers are routinely released and given about a year to prepare their asylum cases.

Different standard

But not Haitians. Last December, after all but two of a boatload of 187 Haitians who landed in Miami passed their credible-fear interview, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) continued to hold them in detention. Since then, a select few have been paroled, and about 50 remain in detention - but the vast majority have been deported.

Now, as signs point to a repeat of this approach with more than 200 new refugees, Miami's immigrant community is feeling heartache. Some people have questioned why Haitians are treated so differently - especially when compared with Cubans, who, under a 1966 law, are virtually entitled to legal residency within a year if they reach shore.

"Why aren't Haitians entitled to the same rights as others?" says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "Is it because they aren't from a Communist country but a poor black one? And that Haitians in the United States don't have any political clout?"

Government officials say that the policy change was based on well- founded intelligence in Haiti of a potential mass exodus. Indeed, huge exoduses have occurred before, especially during periods of extreme political repression. For example, tens of thousands of Haitians took to the high seas during the 1991-94 military de facto government.

So far, however, there doesn't appear to be a mass exodus in the works. …