WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's policy of sending most of the Haitian "boat people" back to their violence-ridden homeland withstood a final constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court yesterday.
With only one justice dissenting, the court voted to bypass an appeal by Haitians who had fled by boat after a military coup. It also rejected a new request to stop the administration from forcing the Haitians to return.
The court's action meant that the Haitians and their lawyers in a Miami refugee center were now out of legal options.
That left them with only the possibility that Congress might act to spare them from being repatriated to Haiti -- a legislative effort that already has been threatened with a veto by President Bush and that may come too late anyway.
The Supreme Court acted hours after the Organization of American States had brokered an agreement that offered hope of ending Haiti's political crisis and with it the economic embargo that has pinched the country's poor the most.
The agreement must be ratified by the Haitian parliament. It would reinstate President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, grant amnesty to all those who participated in last September's coup that ousted him and install Mr. Aristide's choice, Rene Theodore, as prime minister, operating separately from the president.
It made no mention of the army chief, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, although it is expected that he would remain in his post. Success of the pact depends on winning support from the military, which holds ultimate power in Haiti.
"There's some question about whether it will be acceptable to the military leadership in Haiti," Secretary of State James A. Baker III told Congress yesterday.
There is scant alternative to a political solution, he indicated. Military force, with U.S. participation, is "not in the cards, I don't think," because the OAS would oppose it, Mr. Baker said.
The coup that ousted Mr. Aristide touched off an almost daily flotilla of small, unsafe boats carrying Haitians attempting to flee to America. Under a U.S. government policy that dates to 1981, )) the Coast Guard began seizing the Haitians on the high seas and returning them to Haiti.
Last November, however, lawyers for the Haitians opened what ultimately became a three-month legal battle. A judge in Miami would issue an order blocking the forced return of Haitians and an appeals court would overturn him, only to lead to a new round of orders by the Miami judge against the repatriation.
The Haitians were taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while the legal fight went on.
Ultimately, at the end of January,the Supreme Court allowed the U.S. government to resume the forced repatriation. The Haitians' lawyers then brought the issue to the Supreme Court. That was the maneuver that failed, with only Justice Harry A. Blackmun dissenting.
The other justices made no comment, but Mr. Blackmun said that the case raised significant legal and constitutional issues.
"If indeed the Haitians are to be returned to an uncertain future in their strife-torn homeland, that ruling should come from this court, after full and careful consideration of the merits of their claims," he wrote.
The forced repatriation has caused a furor among human rights activists and supporters of Mr. Aristide. The House Judiciary Committee voted last week to suspend the repatriations, although administration officials say the president probably would veto such a move.
The speed with which the boat people are being returned to Haiti suggests there may be few left, if any, when the full Congress acts.
Of the 15,826 picked up by the Coast Guard, 7,391 remain at Guantanamo. Of these, 3,474 are waiting to go to the United States to pursue their claims to asylum and 3,917 are waiting either to be repatriated or to be questioned by immigration officials.
Among those who may have a chance to remain are 230 who have been found to be positive for the AIDS virus; an official policy on what to do with them remains to be settled.
A total of 5,155 of the Haitians are believed to have a plausible claim to asylum.
Since the end of January, 5,983 Haitians have been repatriated, including 517 yesterday.
In Baltimore, about 50 people lined Lombard Street in front of the Edward A. Garmatz Federal Building during rush hour yesterday holding signs and banners urging the government to stop the repatriation.
Four representatives from the Baltimore Emergency Response Network and the Baltimore Black/Jewish Forum met with Walter D. Cadman, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, asking him to speak out against the repatriation policy.
"Essentially, what he said is that you fellows have to go higher than me to get any redress, because I am just a bureaucrat, a functionary," said Jack L. Levin of the Forum.
Mr. Levin said he worries most that once media attention is turned from Haiti, "that's when these names and fingerprints that are being taken at Guantanamo are going to be used. And people are going to be killed, Haitian style."