WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, complaining that a lower court ruling was stifling U.S. handling of the crisis in Haiti, asked the Supreme Court yesterday to let U.S. vessels continue to pick up fleeing refugees at sea and carry them back to Haiti.
If the pick-up-and-return policy that has been in effect since late May is halted now, as a federal appeals court ordered Wednesday, this will encourage refugees to start leaving their homeland in droves again "in overloaded, unseaworthy boats," the government told the court.
"There is every reason to believe that [the appeals court decision] will lead to rapid migration" from Haiti, which in turn will lead to a loss of life, plus interference with U.S. foreign policy actions toward Haiti, federal lawyers argued.
Moreover, they said, the ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York "would have broad implications for future efforts to deal with outflows of aliens from other countries throughout the world."
Although the order by President Bush has been nullified by the appeals court, the government was free to resume that policy yesterday afternoon after the appeals court granted a two-day reprieve.
That was done to give the Supreme Court time to ponder the emergency plea. Justice Clarence Thomas, who gets emergency pleas from the 2nd Circuit, put off action until after lawyers representing refugees tell the court their side in the dispute this afternoon.
Thus, the situation appeared set for the refugees, and the U.S. government, to learn perhaps by the end of the day today if refugees will again be allowed to show a rightful claim to leave their homeland out of fear of political persecution by the regime that seized power last September.
The government asked yesterday only that the pick-up-and-return policy be allowed to continue until after the Supreme Court has a chance to rule on the legality of that policy. The government is going to file a formal appeal later challenging the appeals court ruling that nullified that policy.
It probably will be at least early October before the court does anything more than issue a temporary order for or against allowing the policy to continue.
The government's plea to the justices yesterday was written in impatient phrases, saying that it regretted having to come back to the court for the third time this year on its Haitian refugee policy.
The appeals court decision Wednesday, the government contended, "intrudes intolerably into the Executive Branch's control of immigration policy and foreign affairs."
The Supreme Court has twice allowed the U.S. government to send Haitians back after giving the refugees a quick review of their eligibility for political asylum. Such a review had occurred either on board a Coast Guard vessel or at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
This time, the dispute centers on President Bush's May 24 order that requires the Coast Guard to pick up all refugees fleeing Haiti by boat and swiftly take them back to shore, with no immediate review of their asylum claims. Haitians must now take such claims to the U.S. Embassy in Port au Prince -- something that the government said more than 9,000 have done recently.
Refugee advocates say that the review process ignores realities and that some applicants are subject to Haitian government harassment.
The Justice Department argued that the May 24 order was not an actual change in policy, permitting a new legal dispute to arise, but merely a continuation of a decade-old policy of stopping "boat people" from coming to U.S. shores.
The appeals court had rejected that argument and said the order was a change in policy. The appeals court chastised the Bush FTC administration for having escaped Supreme Court review of its refugee-return policy earlier by making promises that it did not keep about reviewing asylum claims.
"We vigorously dispute" that accusation, the administration told