MIAMI -- In a historic and startling victory for Haitian refugees, a federal judge ruled yesterday that thousands of Haitians living in tent cities and aboard ships cannot be forced back to their strife-torn homeland until the U.S. government gives them a greater opportunity to claim political asylum.
U.S. District Judge C. Clyde Atkins gave the federal government seven days to come up with a plan to ensure that no Haitians are returned if they have a well-grounded fear of political persecution. The government announced that it intended to appeal.
After two weeks of intense legal sparring, attorneys for the Haitian Refugee Center here were ecstatic over their victory. But they were also gearing up for the coming battle at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's basic policy of excluding economic refugees remains untouched. What the judge criticized -- and ordered changed -- was the INS procedure for determining who is an economic refugee and who is a political refugee.
Late Monday and yesterday, Coast Guard cutters arrived at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and several thousand Haitians disembarked. As of yesterday, there were 4,468 Haitians at the tent city there. There were 671 others aboard naval vessels at the base and 458 still on Coast Guard cutters at sea.
An additional 277 remain temporarily in Honduras and Venezuela.
The Coast Guard picked up its first boatload of Haitians -- 19 men -- on Oct. 29, one month after the coup that toppled Haiti's president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
From the start, the Bush administration opposed granting the refugees temporary haven in the United States for fear of encouraging the exodus. So far, only 197 of 3,450 Haitians interviewed have been deemed possible political refugees, the State Department said yesterday.
As the number of fleeing Haitians mushroomed from hundreds to thousands, the Bush administration announced it would send back all "economic" refugees, both to protect U.S. borders and to save Haitian lives.
In two days, 538 Haitians were returned to the island. But the decision rankled legislators and refugee advocates, who accused the government of racism and hypocrisy.
The Haitian Refugee Center took the U.S. government to federal court. Lawyers charged that interviews at sea had not given refugees a fair chance to make their case for political asylum, to explain whether they left Haiti for fear of political persecution or of poverty.