WASHINGTON -- The number of Haitian refugees picked up by U.S. patrol vessels declined sharply yesterday, the Coast Guard reported, prompting officials to speculate that the Clinton administration's new restrictions on asylum-seekers may be working.
Coast Guard officials said the service encountered only 146 Haitians yesterday on three small boats, one of the smallest daily totals since June 16, when the Clinton administration expanded its facilities for processing Haitian refugees aboard ships.
The figure marked a significant decline from Friday's 24-hour total of 1,859. Since June 15, about 16,000 Haitians have been intercepted as they sought to flee the country by boat in hopes of emigrating to the United States.
Jack O'Dell, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the service had no way of knowing for certain why the number declined so sharply yesterday. Officials speculated, however, that the administration may finally be succeeding in persuading Haitians that such voyages are futile.
Officials involved in the Haitian refugee problem said that if yesterday's low figure continues today and tomorrow, they will assume that the radio broadcasts the United States is sponsoring -- to inform Haitians of the administration's new restrictions -- are succeeding.
The administration has been beaming radio broadcasts to Haiti in its effort to inform ordinary Haitians of its decision to close the door on possible immigration for those who seek to escape Haiti by boat, but until yesterday the effort showed no signs of success.
Mr. Clinton eased his immigration policies in June and began allowing Haitians to seek asylum on ships in the Caribbean and off the coast of Jamaica assigned to process their applications, but the shift caused a surge in refugees.
In an effort to slow the exodus, the White House announced last week that Haitians intercepted at sea would no longer be allowed to immigrate to America and would instead be transported to "havens" outside the United States.
Only those Haitians who apply for asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince will be allowed into the United States -- a step that some Haitians have complained is dangerous because it makes them vulnerable to retaliation by Haiti's military.
The administration continues trying to find more Caribbean countries that might be willing to provide facilities for Haitian refugees who are picked up at sea by U.S. and allied warships.
So far, only Grenada, Antigua and Dominica have agreed in principle to allow the United States to set up holding camps for Haitians. Panama had said last week that it would admit 10,000 refugees to U.S. bases there but withdrew its offer Thursday in a spat with Washington.