Refugee advocates are seeking a better deal for Haitians Cubans get into U.S., Haitians don't. Advocates decry double standard.

August 08, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

MIAMI -- It began 11 years ago. Ships of rotted wood with tattered, hand-stitched sails, crammed with thousands of Haitians, ran aground on beaches in Dade and Broward counties in Florida.

Miami reeled under the strain: the Haitian boat people, the Mariel boatlift. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan, coaxed by Florida Sen. Paula Hawkins and Gov. Bob Graham, struck a bargain with Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier to interdict Haitians on the high seas and send them back home.

In Miami, there were protests and lawsuits and condemnations. Nothing changed.

But now, for the first time, some refugee advocates believe change is under way. Politicians are banding together with black and Cuban advocates to address the Haitians' plight: long-term detention, interdiction and a double standard in immigration policy that welcomes the Cubans as valiant refugees and rejects the Haitians as economic fugitives.

They are urging the Bush administration to take notice, introducing laws, visiting the Krome Detention Center -- all measures many of them have taken in the past, but never in such consolidated fashion.

Three incidents occurring within days of one another made it difficult to ignore Little Haiti's decade-old complaints.

On July 7, the Conail, an old wooden boat, drifted toward South Florida from Haiti with 161 people. Most were escaping poverty, not a wretched political system.

In the distance, they spotted two men bobbing along the currents in a raft of inner tubes, fleeing an island crippled by economic malaise. The Haitians helped the Cubans onto their already dangerously overloaded boat. Then they all steered toward a richer future in Miami.

But the Coast Guard, under U.S. mandate, nabbed the sailboat 30 miles from the coast. The two Cubans were brought to Miami. All but nine of the Haitians wound up back in Haiti.

Two days later, five Haitian stowaways arrived in Miami aboard a Honduran freighter. The immigration service instructed the captain to return them to Haiti.

The captain, afraid to risk a $15,000 fine if the five escaped, wedged three of them inside a small cage on deck. He handcuffed and chained two others to the ship.

Conjuring images of slavery, the incident prompted an outcry in Little Haiti. It never would have happened had they been people with white skin and political clout, refugee advocates cried.

The next day, Rene Arocha, a Cuban baseball player, defected during a layover at Miami International Airport. Major league scouts showed interest. The community welcomed him. He told the press he had dreams: He wanted to be big, a great baseball player in the major leagues.

For many, the contrasts were too vivid to ignore.

"This is an outrageous double standard," said Rep. William Lehman, D-Fla.

Said Republican U.S. Sen. Connie Mack: "There's just something fundamentally wrong with the way we are handling our immigration with respect to Haiti and Haitians."

Mack will tour Krome on Aug. 14. He said he would take a close look at the 10-year-old interdiction policy.

Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez and Metro Dade County Commissioner Art Teele want Mack to help them shut down Krome. The NAACP, the Republican Black Caucus, Operation PUSH and other high-profile black organizations have voiced concerns.

The bottom line, immigration officials say, is that Haitians are treated differently from Cubans -- but so is everybody else.

Cubans are deemed refugees because they are fleeing a Communist government. But Haitians -- like Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Dominicans and just about all others -- are, for the most part, fleeing only poverty, not danger, U.S. officials say.

Some argue that the line between politics and economics is often blurry.

"The interaction and connection between political oppression and economics is tied," Suarez said. "To what extent can you make an economic life if you don't subscribe to certain political tenets?"

Advocates agree that if any changes are to occur, either Congress or the Bush administration has to take the offensive and abandon the usual finger-pointing.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service says it simply follows the laws Congress creates. Congress calls the administration intransigent, saying policy can be changed within the law.

And while politicians and advocates debate immigration policy, some wonder whether more attention should be paid to how the recent incidents have affected relations between Cubans and Haitians.

At the root of Haitians' frustration: the sense that racism drives U.S. policy. Miami Haitians complain that Cubans are accepted here because they are white.

But on Cuban radio, callers argue that Fidel Castro is a tyrant who jails dissidents and then asks questions. They say it's politics, not race, that matters.

"It's very emotional," said the Rev. Tom Wenski, head of the Haitian Catholic Center. "There's a bigger gap being driven between the Cuban and the Haitian communities in Miami. It doesn't bode well."

Cheryl Little of the Haitian Refugee Center is more hopeful. In the last month, she has been barraged with phone calls from Cubans. Some offer to help. Others simply express their sympathies.

"It looks like there is some hope that some important change will finally come about," Little said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.