WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com)–Racial discrimination against Haitian refugees who reach this country and political resentment of that country’s president may be the reason 200 Haitians, including women and children, will remain in detention as long as a year, until deportation hearings can be held for them.
The arrival of the latest influx of Haitians was broadcast live on national television Oct. 29 when their boat ran aground and many of the 150 men, 35 women, and 26 children, some dressed in the Sunday best, tried to make it to land, swarming the busy highway which joins Miami and Key Biscayne. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued 21 of the would-be-refugees, and arrested six of the boat operators, charging them with illegal smuggling.
“These people were treated like a herd of cattle–just put into a corner and processed like a herd of animals. It’s a racist policy,” Florida state Rep. Phillip Brutus, the legislature’s only Haitian-born member, complained, according to a published report.
The detention of the group sparked a rash of emotional demonstrations by Haitians living legally in this country, and at least one political confrontation with Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of Pres. George W. Bush.
The Republican governor was confronted during a campaign appearance at Miami’s Liberty City Learning Center by Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fla.) and hundreds of angry protesters. Rep. Meek, whose district includes Miami’s “Little Haiti,” urged Mr. Bush to call his brother to say that Haitians should be treated like Cuban immigrants who arrive here.
“I came to ask you to call your brother and ask him to release those Haitians,” she said. “Please, you can do it. The wet foot-dry foot policy would take effect.”
Unlike Cubans who reach U.S. shores (“dry feet”), Haitian immigrants are usually denied political asylum and are deported to their homeland. In addition, since last December when Pres. Bush quietly changed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) policy, Haitians who reach this country and are awaiting INS deportation hearings are no longer released into the community as are refugees from all other countries who reach dry land.
At the time of the change the Bush administration officials said that Haitians reaching this country would be detained in order to discourage a feared mass exodus from the impoverished land. Undocumented refugees from all Caribbean, Central American and South American countries, including Cuba, who are captured on the high seas (“wet feet”) are all returned to their countries of origin.
Immigration lawyers have sued the U.S. claiming the policy that keeps asylum-seeking Haitians in custody is racially biased. Civil rights advocates and a growing number of lawmakers from both parties agree. In addition, Cubans who reach the shore are routinely permitted to remain in the U.S. and to apply for permanent residency in a year.
For his part, Gov. Bush said he agrees that Haitian immigrants should be released until their asylum request is heard, like immigrants from other countries. He also said he had called White House officials regarding the immigrants, but he did not elaborate or say whether he had spoken with the President or gotten a commitment from administration officials.
Earlier, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters the Haitians were being treated fairly and humanely, and that the president would not intervene. “The Immigration and Naturalization Service will apply the law and make the proper judgments,” he said.
“Every other nationality has been released when they clear the ‘credible fear of persecution’ hurdle,” said Mr. Brutus. “We’re saying once Haitians hit land, they are entitled to the same due process.”
Ironically, Haitians continue to flee their homeland even though popular former priest Jean Bertrand Aristide was re-installed into power, and then re-elected two years ago.
From 1957 until 1971 the country was ruled by U.S. client and “President-for-life,” Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. In 1986 his son and successor Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was asked to leave the country for exile in France by his U.S. supporters when a general strike crippled the country.
In December 1990, despite tremendous odds and harassment, Mr. Aristide garnered 67 percent of the vote, defeating the ruling-party candidate who enjoyed the support of then-U.S. Pres. George H.W. Bush. He survived several coup attempts, but was driven from power for all but 18 months of his term. In 1996 Mr. Aristide stepped aside when Rene Preval was elected, but in 2000 he returned to power on the heels of another landslide election.
“People have to understand the direct consequence of U.S. foreign policy toward Haiti,” Yves Dayti, a Haitian radio broadcaster who lives in Washington, D.C., told The Final Call. “Ever since Aristide got into office, U.S. policy has been to sabotage everything that the man has to do, wants to do, or hopes to do.
“The Bush administration has put an economic embargo on the country. The country cannot receive financial aid nowhere. They cannot receive financial aid from the World Bank. They cannot receive financial aid from the European community,” he said.
Almost exactly one year ago, the White House, in response to questions by The Final Call, claimed that Haiti’s stability was an important part of U.S. policy, despite the fact that this country was single-handedly blocking hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid and development assistance to the country–the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
At that time the U.S. blocked the delivery of more than $145 million in loans that had already been approved by Inter-American Development Bank. Led by Washington, other foreign donors blocked some $500 million in loans and grants to Haiti hoping to change the political situation on the ground there.
“In a country like Haiti, which depends on the outside world for help, for economic development and for economic sustainability, this is dead wrong,” said Mr. Dayti.
“It’s just a personal vendetta against the man (Aristide) himself. It’s just a personal vendetta that the Bushes have against Aristide. That’s it, plain and simple,” Mr. Dayti concluded.