GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba -- With the court action over and the protests to no avail, the government of the United States began repatriation last night of 150 Haitian refugees to the blighted land they risked their lives to leave.
Many more are expected to follow. The government has denied immigrant status to 5,500 of the estimated 12,000 being held in a makeshift, overcrowded camp at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay.
In Miami, the Haitians' advocates issued an emergency call for support.
"We're making an appeal to every single black, to Jews who have experienced discrimination, to Latinos, to all liberal whites who believe in freedom and justice for all, to stand with us," said Rolande Dorancy, executive director of the Haitian Refugee Center.
Military officials at Guantanamo said that the first group of 150 began boarding the Coast Guard cutter Steadfast yesterday evening and that the ship was scheduled to depart later in the night. The second boat back to Port-au-Prince is scheduled to leave tonight.
"I'm sad they had to leave Haiti and I'm sad that they would have to return," said Air Force Lt. Darian Benson, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay. "They're going back to the same thing they left, but those are our orders."
And still the Haitians flee their land. Yesterday, the Coast Guard reported the interception of three boats carrying 418 Haitians -- nearly triple the number destined to be repatriated last night.
Lieutenant Benson said the first group of 150 Haitians was being "out-processed" yesterday afternoon, forced to turn in their identification cards or bracelets and loaded on the Steadfast for the 14-hour trip home.
He did not provide any information about the members of that first group or details on how they were selected. He suggested, however, that they were bowing to the inevitable with grace and calm.
"There were no incidents of any sort," Lieutenant Benson said. "It just looked like business as usual."
The repatriation, which is expected to take weeks, began just a day after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way by lifting a ban ordered by a Miami federal judge.
Yesterday there came the latest in a series of bizarre legal twists and setbacks for the Haitians. A U.S. appeals court in Atlanta -- the last legal hope of the refugees -- finally decided that it, too, had sometime in the last few days dissolved the ban ordered by the Miami judge.
The appeals court first announced that decision Friday. Then
it pulled it back, saying it was all a mistake. But yesterday the court said its original order stood.
In Miami, the refugees' lawyers essentially conceded defeat. Their legal case was based on the fact that they were never given a chance to visit the base and speak with their clients.
"The writing is on the wall, certainly," said Cheryl Little, an attorney for the Haitian Refugee Center. "We're extremely disheartened, but beyond that we're very, very concerned about the lives of the Haitians who are about to be returned."
She said the refugees' only hope was that Congress would enact emergency legislation that would grant Haitians "temporary protected status."
Such a bill is pending in a House subcommittee. Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat and co-sponsor, said he would try to get the bill to the House floor early this week.
In the past three months and after the last in a series of coups, thousands of Haitians resorted to the dangerous voyage toward Florida aboard generally rickety, overloaded boats. Some of them fled the poverty and hunger endemic in Haiti; some of them fled the violence also endemic in Haiti.