Contrary to what was intended when a U.S. Coast Guard blockade was launched, the waters between Haiti and Cuba have become a "magnet" for boat people. Just when it seemed the blockade was working, Haitians, fleeing repression and the breakdown of civil order have taken to the boats in such large numbers that Washington has now decided to let many come to Florida.
No country can accept unlimited immigration, but U.S. treatment of the Haitians has been deplorable. U.S. law accords refugees rights to hearings on their claims of persecution once they get to this country, but the Bush administration sought to stop them en route. They were shipped to Guantanamo Naval Station on Cuba and there classified as "economic" rather than "political" refugees -- a fiction that drew hooting derision abroad.
Now, it appears that the interdiction strategy itself has backfired. Some 13,600 Haitians have been sent back to their island homeland out of the 33,700 picked up by Coast Guard ships, but another 8,917 won Immigration and Naturalization Service approval to pursue asylum claims on the U.S. mainland. Earlier, during the 10 years before the anti-democracy coup, only 28 Haitians had ever been allowed in the United States to seek asylum.
Some authorities think the success of those 8,917 asylum-seekers attracted even more Haitians. Far from deterring those individuals and families from boarding rickety boats for a perilous journey through Antilles waters, the sure knowledge that U.S. Coast Guard ships waited just beyond the horizon may have been a magnet. Those picked up get a chance to plead their cases to a special INS team flown to Cuba because of the crisis. And the tightening Organization of American States sanctions against the coup leaders make life in Haiti so difficult there is even more incentive to flee a repressive regime.
Now there seems to be a welcome shifting of gears. Haitians granted temporary admittance during a breakdown of civilized government are entitled to hearings to determine if they are genuine political refugees. Real U.S. muscle should be put behind a multi-national push for the return of popularly elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide. There should be added funds for the rebuilding of Haiti once democracy is restored. Those 10,000 Haitians who joined the boat people are telling us something: they can't and won't simply go away.