U.S. lawmakers are urging the Bush administration to rescind what they call a discriminatory policy toward Haitian asylum-seekers. The federal government denies charges by immigrant advocacy and human rights groups that its policy is racially-motivated.
Last December, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) issued a directive saying Haitians should not be released from detention centers while their applications for asylum were pending.
The decision came amid an upturn in the number of boats from Haiti being intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. The INS says it feared another mass migration from Haiti, and its action was designed to deter it.
It also followed the arrival in U.S. waters of a boatload of 167 Haitians, who were taken to Miami. However, although they were able to show a "credible fear of persecution" if they were forcibly repatriated, most remain in detention.
Critics say the INS reversed previous policy under which asylum-seekers were released into the local community while their cases were being processed.
Haitians seeking asylum in the United States are being treated differently from other groups, said Dina Paul Parks, of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.
"All we want is for Haitian asylum-seekers to be treated the same as any other asylum-seeker in this country," she said. "We do not think there should be a double standard. We do not believe that policy falls within the guidelines of American justice, fair play and equal protection under the law."
Florida Congresswoman Carrie Meek, who is leading an effort by the Congressional Black Caucus to have the INS policy changed, noted that "it does not happen to the Central Americans who get here. It does not happen to the Cubans who get here. It happens right now only to Haitians."
In March, attorneys filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the INS directive. It alleges that the Haitians are being mistreated because of their race and nationality - a charge the INS strongly denies. Lawyers say 91 percent of asylum-seekers from other countries are granted parole while they are preparing their asylum cases.
Cheryl Little, of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, disputes the government's claim that its action was designed to save Haitian lives by deterring more boat arrivals. "The reality is that most Haitians who do attempt to flee by boat are interdicted by the Coast Guard and forcibly repatriated," she said. "I do not believe this policy is about protecting Haitian lives, as our government has claimed. This policy is about keeping Haitians out. If our government was truly concerned about protecting Haitians and saving their lives, they would give those Haitians who have made it to the United States due process and the ability to effectively present their asylum claims before immigration judges."
Another group questioning the policy on the Haitian is the National Immigration Forum. "Are we as a policy organization saying that every Haitian in detention or coming is a refugee? We do not know," admitted Frank Sharry, the group's executive director. "What we are saying is that they should not be locked away and railroaded into deportation to an unstable homeland without a fair chance to make their case. That is un-American," he said.
About 270 Haitians, including some 60 women, remain in detention at three sites in Florida. Since December, some have been released on humanitarian grounds. Critics of the INS say all are living in difficult conditions that prevent them from properly preparing their asylum cases.
The New York Times Monday quoted a spokeswoman for Florida Governor Jeb Bush, President George Bush's brother, as saying the governor opposes the new INS policy.