The future of an inhumane but effective U.S. policy toward Haitian boat people rests on resolution of a legal issue from never-never land. It is whether folks who are not citizens are protected by U.S. law in international waters, or whether the U.S. may violate its law protecting them so long as it does so in those waters.
From the September coup ousting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide until May 24, the Coast Guard picked up 36,980 Haitian boat people on the high seas. After hearings to determine their status as political exiles in fear of persecution, or mere economic refugees seeking prosperity, the Coast Guard returned 27,242 to Haiti and admitted most of the remaining 9,738 to the United States as political refugees.
But on May 24, President Bush issued a new policy ordering the Coast Guard to return them to Haiti before interviews. Had they reached U.S. soil, U.S. immigration law would prevent this. The legal question is whether this protection from persecution applies to those who are in U.S. hands but not U.S. jurisdiction. Federal District Judge Sterling Johnson found the president's order unconscionable and hypocritical but legal. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, on Wednesday, reversed him. Now it is up to the Supreme Court.
The May 24 policy did work. After word of it reached Haiti, the exodus stopped and only some 600 people risked all to flee in overcrowded little boats. About 7,000 took the approved path of applying for asylum at the U.S. embassy at Port-au-Prince, of whom 82 were granted admission to the U.S. But the policy also made a mockery of U.S. righteous condemnation of British authorities in Hong Kong for sending Vietnamese economic refugees back, and U.S. lecturing to such host countries as Kenya about Somali refugees and European countries over Bosnian refugees.
Administration hopes for Haiti have rested on the six-week-old government of Prime Minister Marc Bazin, which has failed to bring order or curtail military gangsterism. It is time for Washington to be as humane to refugees from Haiti as those from Cuba. The administration should also mobilize the Organization of American States to restore human rights and democracy to Haiti.
Instead of dumping these desperate people back in persecution, remove the persecution. Instead of forcing them back, make it so they want to go. That would require higher priority for restoring democracy to Haiti, and less zeal for intercepting every last boat person before he or she reaches the life-ring of American law.