MIAMI - Haitian-Americans and immigrants advocates criticized the Bush administration Friday for sending more than 500 Haitian migrants back to face a violent uprising in their homeland, saying "we could be returning people to their death."
The Coast Guard returned 537 people, including infants, near the capital of Port-Au-Prince on Friday. They had been intercepted at sea over the past four to five days within 50 miles of their country's shore as they fled in about a dozen boats.
Coast Guard officials in Miami said Thursday they had detained 546 migrants. It was unclear what happened to the nine other Haitians, and the Coast Guard declined to comment on the return. No other migrants had been detained Friday, Petty Officer Carleen Drummond said.
Haitian-American groups and immigrant advocates wanted the government to consider the rebellion in Haiti that has left about 80 people dead.
"Given the current political crisis in Haiti, we could be returning people to their death," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "It is unconscionable that the world's greatest democracy is not doing more to welcome refugees from a tiny neighbor that is teetering on the edge of political chaos."
The Rev. Jonas Georges, a Haitian-American activist, said the decision showed a "lack of consideration for human suffering."
"One would think that the American government would at least give these people a chance to sort of catch their breath until things calm down," he said. "But taking them back home, I think, is outrageous."
President Bush has repeated the government's policy to turn back any Haitian migrant trying to reach U.S. shores.
The activists called on Bush to take more action to stop the fighting in Haiti to avoid a mass exodus of Haitians to Florida. Under Haiti's military dictatorship between 1991 and 1994, more than 65,000 Haitians were intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard. Most were sent home.
Coast Guard officials were monitoring growing violence in Haiti for signs of an increase in illegal migration to Florida, but so far the numbers were normal.
While not addressing the issue of Haitians caught at sea, nearly 30 more congressional members echoed a statement made by a bipartisan congressional group made a day earlier. They urged the Bush administration to let Haitians facing deportation remain in the country.
U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Fort Lauderdale-area Democrat, and 28 other congressional Democrats from around the nation wrote Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge asking him to give Temporary Protected Status to Haitians. It would apply to students and workers on visas that are about to expire, and to would-be immigrants subject to deportation as they lose asylum appeals.
"Given the severely deteriorating circumstances, the United States has a moral and legal obligation to protect those Haitian nationals already in our country," the letter said.
"To put people in this situation is just wrong. It's inhumane," Deutsch said at a news conference.
Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger said he could not comment on whether the department was considering the request.
Strassberger said Temporary Protected Status is an option the secretary can "grant to nationals of countries experiencing ongoing civil unrest or environmental disaster."
In the last two weeks, three Haitians have been deported, he said. From Oct. 1 to Jan. 31, 64 were sent back, he added.
Authorities on Friday continued their investigation of nearly two dozen Haitians on a ship the Coast Guard intercepted off the Florida coast, trying to determine whether the vessel was hijacked and if the migrants should be returned home.
The freighter, carrying 21 Haitians and seven Filipino crew members, was stopped about seven miles off Miami Beach on Wednesday. Three shotguns and a handgun were turned over to U.S. officials. If evidence shows the Haitians hijacked the ship, they could be brought ashore and arrested on federal charges.