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Haitian-Americans Protest Treatment of Haitian Boat People

Leaders of Miami's Haitian-American community are calling for a work stoppage to protest what they say is the unfair treatment of Haitian boat people.

Haitian-Americans continue to mount spirited demonstrations denouncing the detention of more than 200 Haitians who waded ashore from a wooden freighter near Miami Tuesday.

Niva Joseph says U.S. immigration policy is unfair, and Haitians are suffering. "I am a taxpayer like everybody else," said Niva Joseph. "I do not like the idea that they [immigration officials] are treating my people the way that they are being treated. They are not dogs."

Ms. Joseph says the Haitians should not be confined while awaiting immigration hearings that will determine their status. Immigrant advocates say the policy is discriminatory, since most new arrivals from other nations are released. They add that detention makes it far more difficult for an immigrant to secure legal representation when pursuing an asylum claim.

To press their case, leaders of the Haitian-American community are calling for a general strike next Tuesday. It is no coincidence that Tuesday is election day in the United States; Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the younger brother of President Bush, is in a tight race for re-election.

For two days, Haitian-Americans have hounded the governor at campaign stops, urging him to appeal to his brother on behalf of detained Haitians. Thursday, Jeb Bush responded. "I have talked to my brother; I have talked to [National Security Advisor] Condoleezza Rice; I have talked to the people that are in charge of this policy," said Florida's Governor. "I do not believe it is appropriate for immigrants to be able to say, 'If we make it to the shore, even though we do not have a well-founded fear of persecution, we will be allowed into the country.'"

With just days left before the election, the fate of Haitian detainees has clearly become a political issue in Florida - despite the fact that immigration is a federal, not a state, matter. Governor Bush's Democratic opponent, Bill McBride, has written a letter to the White House urging equitable treatment for the new arrivals. For his part, Jeb Bush has voiced sympathy for Haitians who flee their country. But he says illegal immigration cannot be condoned, or chaotic mass migration may result. "There is a way to create a healthy deterrent so that people do not risk their lives, but also to treat Haitians the way that other immigrants are treated," he said.

The debate surrounding Haitian boat people is gaining attention in Haiti, as well. The government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has seized upon the controversy to call for an end to economic sanctions imposed by the international community. Haitian officials say their countrymen take to the sea - not to flee political repression - but to escape misery deepened by a cut-off of foreign aid.

Haiti, the poorest nation in the Americas, has lost nearly a half billion dollars in economic assistance since the country's parliament was shut down nearly four years ago, launching a political stalemate that continues to this day.