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Source of U.S. policy on Haitian migrants

Source of U.S. policy on Haitian migrants a well-kept secret

Miami Herald,

WASHINGTON - Ten months after it was put into effect, the origin of the policy of incarcerating Haitians who arrive on Florida shores seeking political asylum remains a mystery that even veteran legislators apparently can't solve.

Critics decry the policy as discriminatory, saying that no other nationality is singled out and jailed. But where the policy came from within the Bush administration -- or even who established it -- remains unknown.

In a brief statement on the latest arrival of Haitian migrants in South Florida, and without explaining the incarceration policy, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Haitians "are being treated fairly, appropriately, and humanely."

In recent months, some legislators on Capitol Hill have sought details from the Bush administration on how the policy was established to keep Haitian asylum-seekers in jail while their cases were weighed. The administration, however, won't say.

"We've been trying to put a face to this policy," said Stephanie Cutter, spokeswoman for Sen. Edward Kennedy, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on immigration.

Meanwhile, concerns about Haitian immigration are soaring. As the hurricane season winds down, and as Haiti's political and economic conditions deteriorate, many officials fear that it would take little to entice a flood of Haitians to head for Florida, enduring dangerous trips in rickety vessels.

In the past month, Haiti has approached an economic tailspin. Its currency, the gourde, has plunged 25 percent in value. Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, is attempting to forestall a run on his nation's banks. Violence by thugs -- usually against opponents of Aristide -- is on the rise.

The policy of detaining Haitian asylum-seekers while they await a determination of their status began in mid-December, shortly after a boatload of 187 Haitians foundered off Miami.

A directive from the Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters in Washington ordered federal authorities in South Florida to keep Haitian asylum-seekers locked up unless otherwise authorized by Washington.

INS officials initially denied the directive. But in response to a lawsuit, INS Acting Deputy Director Peter Michael Becraft said in a March 19 affidavit that the new policy was designed to avert a "mass migration" and "to discourage Haitians from contemplating dangerous voyages to the United States."

Becraft was unavailable for comment, and a spokesman declined to address the issue.

"This is hypersensitive," a senior U.S. policymaker said, noting concerns in Washington that a new wave of Haitian migrants may be in the offing. Any green light from the United States "would entice a lot of Haitians to attempt to come. And you're talking about unseaworthy old boats in the open sea."

Legal migration from Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is already high. Ashcroft noted in his statement that 58,000 Haitians have come legally to the United States since 1999.

Advocates for Haitian immigrants, however, say the policy of detaining Haitians who ask for political asylum is discriminatory. They charge that the policy originates in higher circles in the Bush administration.

"We think the decision was made way above INS's head," said Dina Paul Parks, executive director of National Coalition for Haitian Rights, a New York City-based group. "No one really wants to take responsibility for it. They know it is very ugly."

"It is our understanding that the decision was made at the highest levels of the administration, and that the Department of Justice was charged with implementing it," said Cutter, the spokeswoman for Sen. Kennedy.

Kennedy called a hearing Oct. 1 on the policies of detaining Haitian asylum-seekers, but the Justice Department declined to send anyone to testify.

"No one takes responsibility for it. Everybody passes the buck," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, who testified at the hearing.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, peppered a midlevel State Department official at a different hearing the same day about the genesis of the policy, only to be told it was an inter-agency decision.

Some question whether jailing Haitian asylum-seekers would succeed in slowing further immigration.

"Detention in and of itself is not a deterrent," said Doris Meissner, a former INS chief in the Clinton administration. "The best way to handle it is a policy of interdiction on the high seas."

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