U.S. returns 530 intercepted Haitians, drawing fire from activists, legislators
The Bush administration on Friday repatriated more than 530 Haitians picked up at sea over the past few days, sparking a flurry of protests from Haitian-Americans and advocates for refugees.
U.S. Coast Guard vessels returned the Haitians, including infants, to a dock on the southern end of the violence-torn capital of Port-au-Prince.
The development came the same day that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami decided not to prosecute any of the Haitians aboard an allegedly hijacked Panamanian-flagged freighter that the Coast Guard stopped within 10 miles of the coast on Wednesday. As a result, the 21 Haitians aboard -- including 17 the ship's captain described as hijackers -- likely also will be sent back to their homeland, the Coast Guard said.
The Haitians repatriated Friday were intercepted over the past few days in the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, an area where the Department of Homeland Security maintains "a robust presence," the Coast Guard said. The security effort includes surface and air patrols by the Coast Guard and air patrols by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"It is our intention, upon rescuing Haitian migrants from peril at sea aboard grossly overloaded and unseaworthy vessels, to immediately repatriate them in a safe and secure manner," said Rear Admiral Harvey Johnson, commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District.
Coast Guard officials in Miami said Thursday that they had detained 546 migrants. But on Friday, the Coast Guard announced it had repatriated more than 530. It was unclear what happened to the others, but immigration advocates said U.S. authorities may grant some of the Haitians interviews to determine if they fear reprisals upon their return to Haiti.
In South Florida, the repatriation decision was decried as inhumane. Local Haitians said the administration never gave those who fled the island a chance to make such claims, as only a few were given the opportunity to ask for political asylum. They also decried the decision to send Haitians back to a country plagued by violence.
Larry Pierre, director of the Center for Haitian Studies in Miami's Little Haiti, said the government's action further illustrates that Haitians are treated as second-class citizens because of their ethnic and economic backgrounds.
"Once again, it's something that shows these people don't care about Haitians -- a bunch of poor black folks," Pierre said. "What it boils down to is economics. They are going to be a burden on America, and [U.S. officials] don't want them."
The administration's treatment of the Haitians sparked a protest at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.
Gerard Ferère, of Boca Raton, was among a group of local Haitians who gathered to raise awareness about the political violence forcing Haitians to leave their homeland.
"They should not send them back now," said Ferère, who pointed to the dangers of daily life in Haiti. "The United States is asking its citizens to leave Haiti; why is the U.S. sending Haitians back?"
At the very least, Ferère said, the Haitians stopped at sea should have been provided temporary shelter until a sense of normalcy returns to Haiti.
"Sending them back right now would be a crime," he said.
From the Bush administration's point of view, the repatriations were necessary because the Haitians did not qualify for political asylum because they had not demonstrated a credible fear of persecution if returned, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
"U.S. policy with respect to boat migrants, including Haitians, is clear: They will be returned to the country from which they departed absent specific concerns that they might have about protection," he said.
Boucher said Coast Guard medical technicians assessed the Haitians, who also were given food before being "taken safely back to their own country."
Some of the Haitians who were repatriated said they were fleeing the intense poverty in Haiti, not because of their politics or because they feared being harmed during the uprising that has claimed dozens of lives.
"We left because life is bad here," Largesse Cendrille, 27, cradling her year-old daughter, told The Associated Press.
Some said they jumped at the chance.
"I saw a boat getting ready to leave, so I got in it," said Dorismond Zidor, 20, who left Feb. 16 aboard a small boat from his hometown of Miragoane, in southern Haiti.
Zidor, who is unemployed, said the Coast Guard picked up his group after two days at sea without sufficient food or water.
"They treated us OK," he said. "They gave us some food and water."
Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center, said the administration is playing tough.
"They are determined not to extend protection to bona fide refugees, which is in clear violation of international law," Little said. "It's pretty ironic that at the same time that we're urging U.S. citizens to flee [Haiti] and sending Marines to protect our embassy, we're sending back Haitians to a country where there is no rule of law without any due process."
In recent days, President Bush has said the federal government would turn back any Haitians trying to reach U.S. shores. On Friday, his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, praised the administration's "solid" plan to prevent a massive wave of Haitian immigration.
"Floridians should be comforted that the federal government has a significantly more aggressive posture to protect our shores and the huge social costs that could come from an avalanche of refugees," the governor said.
State Sen. Phillip Brutus, D-North Miami, the first Haitian-American elected to the Florida Legislature, said he was "appalled" by the repatriations and feared some Haitians were being returned to "almost certain deaths."
"Are we to believe that not one of these people had a well-founded fear of persecution?" he said. "They obviously did not give anyone a chance to apply for asylum, and that is immoral and illegal."
Members of South Florida's congressional delegation sought to prevent the repatriations this week.
"The last thing we would want is for the Coast Guard to take people back to Haiti that have fled and watch these individuals slaughtered," U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said at a news conference late Thursday in Miami. He was joined by U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, who also said he feared what could happen to Haitians upon their return.
"No community is more impacted by Haiti than this community," said Diaz-Balart, who like other Cuban-American legislators, has expressed support for Haitians in the past. "If they are returned they will face extreme crisis."
Staff Writers Noaki Schwartz, Thomas Monnay, Jennifer Peltz and Rafael Lorente and Maya Bell of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report, which was supplemented with information from The Associated Press.
David Cázares can be reached at email@example.com or 305-810-5002.
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