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INS Translators Join Debate on Treatment of Haitian Refugees

For three years, Jennie Smith lived in a village of mud huts in Haiti, teaching people how to stay healthy. And in turn, she says, they taught her how to live without money or modern conveniences: sharing their food, teaching her their language and showing her how to cook on an open fire.

So when the opportunity arose to work as a Haitian interpreter, helping the INS screen refugees seeking asylum at Guantanamo Bay, Ms. Smith enlisted. It would be her way to give something back to the nation whose people had treated her like family.

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"They always told me that although we had different color skin, we had the same color blood," said Ms. Smith, who is white. "They became family to me."

But after she arrived at the naval base in Cuba, Ms. Smith said she realized that the U.S. government didn't share her compassion for the Haitian refugees, who abandoned their country by the hundreds on teetering boats after a military coup forced the ouster of President Jean Bertrand-Aristide.

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The refugees said they came in search of safety because those who supported President Aristide, the country's first democratically-elected president, were being beaten and murdered by the military.

INS officials say their screening is "a good faith effort" to seek out those who are truly in danger and deserve refuge. But most of the refugees, they say, are seeking relief from Haiti's crushing poverty rather than a safe haven from political harassment and violence.

Recently, California Rep. Howard Berman said that the number of Haitian refugees who are "screened in" -- permitted to stay in this country to pursue asylum -- has plummeted to between 2 and 10 percent. Before April, about 35 percent of the 20,000 Haitian refugees picked up by Coast Guard cutters was allowed to pursue asylum. All others were returned home.

Most of the Haitian refugees never stood a chance of being allowed to enter the United States, say Ms. Smith and several other translators who worked for the INS at Guantanamo.

In sworn statements, they say that the screening process was flatly unfair. Interviews were too short -- some lasting no more than 10 minutes -- to make accurate judgments of a refugee's claims. And the interpreters say that sometimes interviewers would use intimidating language and gestures that would confuse or frighten the refugees.

"One time a refugee said that he would rather be killed at Guantanamo than to go back to Haiti," said Ms. Smith. "And the interviewer laughed and said, 'I wonder what he would do if we told him we will take him up on that.' "

"The Haitians would be fighting for asylum, and the adjudicators would say, 'You're the ones giving Haiti a bad reputation. Cut out that political crap," said Antoine Eustache, an interpreter who resides in Philadelphia.

But even for the "lucky ones" -- Haitian refugees who convinced the INS that their claims of persecution were worth investigating -- the nightmare is far from over. Many of them are still being housed in teetering tents at Guantanamo Bay, while awaiting decisions on their asylum claims. Translators like Ms. Smith say that the Army-green tents stand in the midst of a desolate airfield. There are no trees to provide relief from the beating sun and the air is thick with the stench of human waste and garbage.

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She and other translators say that some of the refugees were denied food and water for days after chanting, "We want asylum!" And when some of the refugees asked for soap to wash their clothes, Ms. Smith said they were given sour oranges.

"A lot of the Haitians who voluntarily repatriated did so because of their treatment at Guantanamo," said Mr. Eustache. "They did not 'voluntarily' go back, as the government likes to say."

The treatment of Haitian refugees has sparked outrage among civil rights advocates who insist that the reason Haitians are denied refuge and a decent standard of living while they are detained is because they are black and poor. These advocates have initiated several court battles seeking a more vigorous screening process by the INS and permission for Haitian refugees to meet with attorneys who can help pursue their asylum claims and make sure they get a fair hearing.

Refugees of other nations in turmoil have generally been granted at least temporary residency in the United States, including Salvadorans, Kuwaitis, Lebanese, Liberians and Somalis. By law, the attorney general can grant temporary protective status to foreign nationals who are "subject to armed conflict, natural disaster and other extraordinary and temporary conditions."

"While our borders cannot be open to everyone, they are meant to be open to people fleeing precisely the kind of political violence of which Haitians are now the victims," says Cheryl Little, an advocate for Haitian refugees in Miami.

"Who's persecuting the Haitians?," counters Duke Austin an INS spokesman. "Other Haitians. Now are we supposed to let all Haitians in here, even the ones doing the persecuting?"

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Weak argument, responds Ms. Little, since the same could have been said about any of the nationals who have been granted temporary protection. "How do we know we weren't letting the bad Salvadorans in?"

The treatment of Haitian refugees is not new and probably based on politics as much as race, say Haitian advocates. Ms. Little says that Haitians -- unlike the boisterous and wealthy Cuban community -- have very little political influence in this country.

In 1981, President Reagan signed an agreement with the Haitian government giving the Coast Guard the authority to board Haitian vessels, seize any refugees on board and return them to Haiti. Although Haitians made up less than 2 percent of the undocumented population in the United States at the time, President Reagan said the group had become "a serious national problem detrimental to the interests of the United States."

Haiti is the only country to have such an agreement with the United States. And from the date it was signed in 1981 until the coup last September, only eight of the 23,000 Haitian refugees interdicted by the Coast Guard were allowed to seek asylum in this country.

"It's very hard for me to see Haitians being treated this way," said Ms. Smith, who is now a graduate student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina. "It is a total antithesis of the way the Haitians treated me when I was in their country."

"The Statue of Liberty doesn't say 'Give me your white. . . . ' " It says, 'Give me your tired and your poor,' " said Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder. "The Statue of Liberty, if she were real, would have a heart. She probably would have dropped her torch about now and thrown up both her hands in disgust at seeing American policy."

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Ginger Thompson is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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