The Haitians Surely Deserve Better


November 21, 1991|By DENNIS GALLAGHER

WASHINGTON — Washington. - The decision to forcibly return Haitian boat people to their country, temporarily held up by a federal judge in Miami, underscores that the U.S. government is prepared to espouse policies for other countries it is not ready to live with itself. Further, it demonstrates once again that the U.S. government is highly selective in its decisions of who it will and will not be generous toward when it comes to emergency migration.

The U.S. government, at the very highest levels, has opposed the involuntary return of Vietnamese boat people. It has castigated British and Hong Kong authorities for their decision to forcibly repatriate Vietnamese who have been allowed to land in Hong Kong, who have had their applications for refugee status reviewed and reviewed again on appeal and who, even when they are returned, benefit from an international agreement which assures material assistance and monitoring of their conditions back in Vietnam by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Now the U.S. government seems to have adopted for itself the same policy of return as the British, only aimed at discouraging flight of people from Haiti to the United States. Unlike the case of the Vietnamese boat people, however, there is no carefully negotiated international agreement which defines the terms and circumstances of return. Unlike for the Vietnamese boat people, the Haitians have not been allowed to land in this country, but have been interdicted at sea by the Coast Guard and have had their applications for political asylum reviewed ''off shore'' without any regular oversight by international bodies and without access to lawyers or other individuals who might help represent them in their applications. When these people are returned they go back without assistance, to a country upon which an economic boycott is being imposed, without agreed-upon human rights monitoring, into circumstances where the security situation for civilians is extremely unstable.

In 1990, the U.S. government enacted a bill which permits the granting of ''temporary protected status'' to individuals fleeing emergency situations. Under its provisions, the attorney general has the authority to grant temporary protected status where there are ''extraordinary and temporary conditions in the foreign state that prevent . . . nationals of the state from returning to the state in safety.''

This law has been invoked on behalf of Kuwaitis during the war with Iraq, Salvadorans, Liberians and others. It has obviously been decided not to use this law in this instance. It is all too clear that decisions to return the Haitians are not being made based on an assessment of their humanitarian condition but on a fear of massive migration of Haitians to this country. Haitians apparently do not have the political clout that some other communities have to overcome the government's reluctance to be more generous.

Right now, there are as many as 80,000 Nicaraguans in the United States who came during the civil war there. These people were never granted temporary protected status because the bill was enacted after a political settlement had been reached in Nicaragua, fair elections held and a new government ensconced. The U.S. government is now basically turning a blind eye to these out-of-status Nicaraguans in the United States.

The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 remains on our books. This law grants to Cubans who reach this country a right to remain here irrespective of the reasons they have come. When Cubans start to arrive, as they surely will as Fidel Castro's hold on his country becomes more tenuous, there is no chance of forcibly returning them. To do so would obviously be to break faith with a Cuban community in Miami which has real political clout.

Having worked on refugee and related migration issues for more than a decade, I do not find arguments based on ''equity'' of treatment for all would-be immigrants to the United States very realistic or even beneficial. Clearly, both international and domestic policies and interests must be considered in making these decisions. In any case, if ''equity'' were to be imposed as a standard, the result would likely be the lowest common denominator.

Nevertheless, there are limits beyond which discretionary policies toward immigrants cannot be stretched without causing serious public reaction as well as having an adverse impact on the credibility of the United States to influence decisions on how movements of people are to be handled by receiving states.

In 1980, the Carter administration planned a generous response to the Mariel boatlift Cubans and a restrictive response to Haitian boat people. The outcry from refugee and human-rights groups, from the black community and the public at large led to a reversal of this policy. The Cuban-Haitian Special Entrants Act of 1980 was enacted, bringing both groups under the same legislative authority.

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