American welcomes: One refugee embraced one gets cold shoulder

April 12, 1992|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

MIAMI -- Ask Roberto Ramos why he abandoned Cuba and he'll show a smuggled videotape of his neighborhood in Havana, where smelly garbage is piled so high it towers over children playing nearby, where stores are stocked with rotten meat and fruits, and where police threaten residents with guns for no apparent reason.

Lema Dukens has no videotape of his village in Haiti, but his memories are just as vivid. A member of a pro-democracy political party, Mr. Dukens still gets dizzy when he remembers being chased out of his house by backers of the armed military officials who seized power from Haiti's first democratically elected president. For days he hid in the countryside, starving and in excruciating pain from a broken leg.

Fed up and frightened, these two men from two different worlds reached similar decisions to leave their homes and families rather than endure the nightmare their lives had become. They each boarded fishing boats and headed north in search of a haven: the United States.

In January, each arrived in Miami. Here the similarity of their stories ends.

Federal officials received the 27-year-old Mr. Ramos as a hero in the struggle against communism and offered him the chance to pursue a peaceful life in Miami. But U.S. immigration officials see Mr. Dukens, 26, as a beggar seeking relief from his country's crushing poverty and have yet to decide if they will allow him to remain.

It is a disparity that has outraged Haitian advocates and civil rightsleaders, who see only one reason behind the U.S. government's treatment of Haitian refugees, most of whom are returned to their turbulent country.

"It's the color of their skin," said Cheryl Little, an attorney who works with Haitian refugees in Miami. "You have to understand the lengths this country has gone to to keep them out, and you'll realize there's no other reason."

Mr. Dukens is one of the 6,600 Haitian refugees who have been allowed to pursue pleas for asylum in the United States since September, when a military coup halted the democratic reforms begun by Haiti's president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

More than 18,400 people have fled the impoverished Caribbean country on teetering boats and makeshift rafts. But two out of three have been sent back because the U.S. government believes they are seeking economic prosperity instead of a chance to save their lives.

Meanwhile, all Cubans except criminals are welcomed by law no matter what their claims. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allows Cubans admitted to the United States to apply for permanent residency one year after their arrival. No other foreigners have such open-ended protections.

"It's not that other nationalities are discriminated against; it's that Cubans are discriminated for," said Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Duke Austin. "We are required by law to give [Cubans] that benefit."

Mr. Ramos is one of 300 balseros -- boat people, in Spanish -- intercepted by the Coast Guard so far this year. Last year, more than 2,203 balseros were rescued, while 1,700 other Cubans arrived by plane through a refugee program sponsored by the Cuban National Foundation, one of the most powerful Cuban exile groups in the United States. None was sent back.

"We don't begrudge the Cubans the treatment they receive in this country," said the Rev. Thomas Wenski, head of the Notre Dame D'Haiti Church in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood. "Look what they have been able to do for themselves and this country. They have been able to prosper. All that we want are the same opportunities for the Haitian people."

Since the early 1960s, when U.S. planes brought over hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees, the Cuban exile community has amassed substantial wealth and political clout. According to the Census Bureau, 24 percent of the Cuban families living in the United States earn more than $50,000 a year.

And with their money they have organized a sophisticated network of services to ease the transition for refugees. For example, a group of Cuban pilots who call themselves Brothers to the Rescue fly over the Straits of Florida each week in search of Cuban refugees stranded at sea.

And the Cuban American National Foundation boasts a membership of 50,000 people across the country -- people who are willing to provide refugees with places to live, funds for transportation, job leads and legal assistance until the new arrivals are self-sufficient.

Haitian refugees, on the other hand, arrive in the United States and find a Haitian community that is largely poor and unheard.

Only a handful of public interest lawyers in Miami are processing asylum applications for the recent wave of Haitian refugees, who spend hours waiting in line at the Haitian Refugee Center or the Catholic Refugee Resettlement Office. The refugees rely on meager monthly grants from church agencies because their families cannot support them. And only those with serious illnesses or injuries receive medical attention.

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