The Coast Guard has picked up hundreds of Haitians, including 21 from a freighter off Miami, but feds say the numbers don't indicate mass exodus. Activists are pressing for asylum for the Haitians.
BY ELAINE DE VALLE
The U.S. Coast Guard has picked up more than 560 Haitians at sea in the past few days as a violent revolt continues to claim lives in their homeland, but federal authorities say they do not consider those numbers evidence of a coming mass migration.
Twenty-one Haitians on the freighter Margot intercepted off Miami on Wednesday were still aboard the Panama-registered ship late Thursday, as Coast Guard investigators and immigration agents continued to interview them and seven Filipino crew members about their voyage. The captain has said the freighter was hijacked.
At least 546 more U.S.-bound Haitians were interdicted on about a dozen vessels within the past few days, said Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz.
''Mostly on small vessels, 12-foot and 15-foot. All of them are sailboats,'' he said.
He did not release any more details about the groups, except that all were intercepted within 50 miles of Haiti's coast.
They were all being held aboard Coast Guard cutters Thursday afternoon, he said.
Lt. Tony Russell, another agency spokesman, said, ``Every indication is that they will be repatriated to Haiti.''
Russell said the number did not signal a mass exodus like one in the early 1990s when Coast Guard crews often rescued thousands of Haitians in a day.
''While we're seeing an increase in [Haitian] migrants, there are no indications of a mass migration,'' Russell said, noting that 361 were found on a single boat in December, two months before the rebellion against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide started.
Asked about the capacity of the cutters to hold migrants, Russell said, ''We certainly do have concerns as the number of migrants held on a platform begin to increase,'' though he stressed that the agency has the resources available for the crisis and can always call upon more from other districts.
Neither the Coast Guard nor federal immigration authorities would say if the Haitians aboard the Margot had asked for asylum or if they would be repatriated.
ACTIVISTS SPEAK UP
But, at a news conference in Little Haiti Thursday afternoon, a dozen Haitian-American activists and leaders urged the White House not to send any Haitians back to an unstable situation.
''We don't know who these people are,'' said Rep. Phillip Brutus, D-North Miami. ``Let's say you were a [pro-Aristide] Lavalas member in Gonaives and you get sent back. You will be killed!''
Gonaives is among several cities that have been seized by anti-Aristide rebels.
Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, urged authorities to let the Haitians at sea make their asylum claims on land. She noted that 30 percent of a group of 200 Haitians who reached Key Biscayne in October 2002 had been able to prove fear of persecution and were granted political asylum.
Even if some of the migrants on the freighter are proved to be hijackers, they should not automatically be sent back, Bastien said.
''They had to flee for their lives,'' she said.
Authorities would not confirm or deny Thursday the freighter captain's claim that the ship had been hijacked by 17 of the Haitians, who identified themselves as police officers and government officials. There were four other Haitians on board, but it was unclear Thursday if they were passengers, crew members or relatives of the alleged hijackers.
Diaz said all 21 Haitians aboard the freighter are men.
Russell, the Coast Guard spokesman, said three shotguns and a handgun were recovered from the 199-foot freighter. But that alone is not evidence of a hijacking, he warned.
''It is not uncommon for commercial vessels to have weapons on board for safety reasons,'' he said.
`ALL THE POSSIBILITIES'
Asked if the incident could have been a smuggling operation disguised as a hijacking, he said ''all the possibilities'' were being considered.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said investigators were still trying to sort out the details Thursday morning.
If evidence shows the Haitians hijacked the ship, it would be the first incident in more than a decade in which Haitian migrants used force to reach South Florida -- and they could be brought ashore to face federal charges.
In Tallahassee, Gov. Jeb Bush pressed for repatriation of the group.
''They should be sent back to Haiti. They hijacked a boat. They hijacked a large vessel. And unless they have a well-founded fear of persecution that is specific that meets the criteria of our laws, they should be sent back,'' the governor said.
Said Bastien: ``That would be criminal. It would be tantamount to putting them on a sinking boat without a captain.''
President Bush said Wednesday -- hours before the freighter was stopped offshore -- that the United States would continue its policy of turning back all Haitian refugees trying to reach U.S. shores in an effort to discourage mass migration: ``We encourage, strongly encourage, the Haitian people to stay home.''
Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.