Some lawmakers have renewed their criticism of U.S. immigration policies toward Haitians. The reaction came as the White House and authorities in Florida gave assurance that more than 200 Haitians detained after arriving by boat Tuesday will be treated fairly.
The arrival of the Haitians, now in detention centers in Florida, has re-focused attention on policies congressional and other critics say discriminate against Haitians, in contrast to others particularly Cubans - seeking asylum in the United States.
In a statement (Wednesday), Congressman John Conyers urges Attorney General John Ashcroft to ensure that the latest Haitians to arrive are treated humanely and given access to lawyers to prepare requests for asylum.
Earlier this year, Mr. Conyers joined a number of other lawmakers in drawing attention to the treatment of Haitians. "The policy was really about, one policy that followed the law, and then there was the Haitian policy, which seemed to boil down to the minute someone Haitian came in the [territorial] waters or hit the shore, they were either arrested or imprisoned, or they were put on a boat immediately and sent back without any interrogation," said John Conyers.
In December 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) issued a directive saying Haitians would no longer be released into the community from detention centers while applications for asylum are pending.
The INS and the Bush administration said this was aimed at discouraging another mass migration from Haiti.
Last March, attorneys representing Haitians and human rights groups filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the directive, alleging Haitians were being mistreated because of their race and nationality - a charge the INS strongly denied.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked about criticism that Haitians are treated differently from Cuban asylum-seekers. "The President's job is to enforce the laws of the land, and the laws will be enforced," said Ari Fleischer. "In this case, what is happening now is that these Haitians are being treated fairly, are being treated appropriately, are being treated humanely, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) will apply the law, and make the proper judgments."
In Florida Wednesday, the Haitian issue was thrust further into the spotlight by another congressional critic of U.S. policy, Florida Congresswoman Carrie Meek.
She confronted Governor Jeb Bush - who is campaigning for re-election urging him to phone his brother, President George W. Bush, and ask him to release the Haitians who arrived Tuesday. Governor Bush responded this way:
BUSH: "My position is, as I stated, if people have a well-founded fear of persecution they should be allowed into the community, out of Krome [the Camp where Haitians are staying], and they should be able to pursue those remedies through administrative."
MEEK: "Tell your brother they can be released right now. They can."
In a statement released by her office in Washington, Congresswoman Meek calls U.S. policies on Haitian arrivals, in her words, "plainly and simply racist."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer Wednesday said President Bush expects existing laws to be enforced, adding that he knows of no changes that are being proposed.