The shame of America's Haitian policy

DERRICK Z.JACKSON

March 27, 1992|By Derrick Z. Jackson

JENNIE SMITH served as a volunteer translator in the Haitian refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from Dec. 24 to Jan. 17. Smith thought her purpose was to help U.S. Immigration get accurate interviews from the people who fled the island after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In the end, Smith said accuracy was not what the United States was looking for. She said no sincere effort was made to determine if refugees had legitimate reasons to fear going back to Haiti. She called the interviews a "charade."

"One (Immigration and Naturalization Service) officer told me this was the most ridiculous program he'd seen," Smith said. "The system was so inhumane. Haitians had no chance to be seen as respectable, thinking people."

Smith, 25, is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina. She learned Creole by working three years in a women's collective in a remote village in Haiti. In February, she signed an affidavit recounting her experience at Guantanamo Bay.

On the technical side, immigration officials admitted losing hundreds of records of Haitians, Smith said. She said some Haitians were screened out of a chance for political asylum in the United States, even though there was little or inaccurate information on them. Some were screened into the United States to file for asylum, but had volunteered to go back to Haiti because no one told them they had been cleared.

"There was one man who had a certificate saying he worked for Aristide's party," Smith said. "He was screened out. There was a 16-year-old girl who had two sisters in camp. She was split up from them, and no one would tell her what happened to them. There was a family with five boys of teen age. They were screened out even though their shop had been vandalized and boys in their town were in constant danger."

Smith said there was intense pressure to be stingy on the numbers of "screened in" Haitians. Of the 16,464 refugees stopped short of Florida after the coup, the United States has returned 9,542 to Haiti. Of the remainder, 3,193 have been

screened into the United States to pursue claims of political asylum, and 3,374 remain at Guantanamo.

"The INS officials kept telling us, 'Washington is concerned' or 'Washington wants to know why' the rates of screening Haitians was too high," Smith said. "Then they told us, 'Washington wants your production to go up.' That meant they wanted our interviews to go faster. That meant we would hardly learn anything about the individuals."

Smith heard a military officer telling Haitians they were dogs. She heard an INS officer tell them she did not know if any screened-in Haitians had been taken to Miami, when the officer knew they had.

The family of a woman who died at Guantanamo told Smith that the woman had been told the night before she died that there was no doctor. Another man told Smith he was scared his girlfriend, who had come to Guantanamo with him, had died because he had been there two months, and he never saw her again.

Smith said a Marine major told her that Iraqi prisoners in the Gulf War were treated better than Haitians. She quoted the officer as saying, "I have never been ashamed to wear the uniform before."

When a refugee asked for a cigarette, she said, another officer took a cigarette, broke it in half, ground the stub into the ground, picked it up and handed it to the refugee.

Another soldier gave Haitians sour oranges instead of soap to wash clothes. Smith said she saw a film at Guantanamo where some Coast Guard officers wore surgical masks and gloves when near the Haitians.

"The masks and gloves epitomize the idea we think they're dirty and will infect our country," Smith said. "I asked one INS lawyer why our policy is so awful. He said, 'Because they're poor, uneducated and black.' "

Smith has a personal reason to fear for the safety of the returned Haitians. She still gets frequent letters from the village. The women's collective is no more.

"My friends tell me that since the coup, the word is that no one can meet in a group of more than four people," Smith said. "A lot of the people I worked with are in hiding."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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