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Desperate Haitian boat refugees thrown behind bars
"It broke my heart"

By Nicole Colson | November 8, 2002 | Page 2

THE PICTURES were gut wrenching--dozens of soaking-wet people risking their lives by running across a Florida freeway and begging motorists to stop and take them to safety. That was the reality last week near Miami as more than 200 Haitian immigrants jumped off a 50-foot freighter that they had traveled on for eight days, trying desperately to escape authorities.

"It was very frightening to see," Mayra Vidal, who was driving on the causeway, told the New York Times. "[I saw] this little girl in a party dress with two bows in her hair. It broke my heart. They dressed her up to celebrate." Twenty-one people had to be rescued after they jumped into deep water and couldn't reach shore.

Yet instead of being welcomed into the "land of the free," the dozens of men, women and children have been thrown in U.S. immigration detention centers. That's because the overwhelming majority of asylum requests for Haitian immigrants are rejected out of hand--because Haitians are almost always deemed "economic migrants," rather than "political refugees."

Every year, thousands of Haitians risk their lives traveling on rickety boats to the U.S. They hope to escape the crushing poverty that is part of daily life in Haiti--the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, where most people live on less than $1 a day and two-thirds of the population is either unemployed or underemployed.

The Bush administration doesn't have any sympathy. "The laws of our land are the laws of our land, and they should be enforced by the proper authorities," White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer declared.

But immigration policies toward Haitians represent a glaring double standard. Cuban refugees who land on U.S. shores are treated as "refugees from communism" and allowed to stay. And until last December, Haitians--like immigrants from other countries--were almost always released into the community while their requests for asylum were processed.

But now, the Bush administration says it fears a "mass exodus" of Haitians, due to a standoff between the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the main opposition political party coalition over the results of parliamentary elections in May 2000. The standoff has stalled hundreds of million of dollars worth of international aid--throwing ordinary people even deeper into poverty.

So in December, the Bush gang changed the rules. Political asylum seekers from Haiti are now kept in prison indefinitely while their cases are heard--to "discourage" others from making the journey to the U.S.

This isn't the first time Haitians have been victimized by the U.S. George Bush Sr. similarly ignored the plight of Haitian refugees, and after he was elected, Bill Clinton reneged on his promise to allow fleeing Haitians into the U.S.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami last week to demand the release of the Haitians. As Courtney Bell, a 16-year-old who attended the rally, told the Times, "I don't think freedom should be based on ethnicity."

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