WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for Haitian refugees told the Supreme Court yesterday that the Bush administration was putting up a "floating Berlin Wall" around their homeland to stop them from "escaping a murderous dictatorship."
Seeking to raise the temperature of the legal debate over the administration's 2-month-old policy of returning the boat people to Haiti, the refugees' attorneys said that policy was just as illegal as drowning them would be.
The full court was studying the administration's plea to postpone a federal appeals court ruling this week striking down the policy. The appeals court had ruled that the U.S. policy is illegal under U.S. law and deviates from an international treaty against sending refugees home if they face potential persecution there.
The Supreme Court has until this afternoon to act, before the appeals court ruling would go into effect.
Under the policy followed since late May, Haitian refugees fleeing their country by boat are picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and put back on shore, with no review of their potential claim to U.S. asylum.
The 34-page legal brief of the refugees' attorneys denounced the argument by administration lawyers that the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision against that policy would threaten the lives of Haitian refugees by encouraging more of them to set out for the United States on rickety boats.
The policy itself, they contended, means that "bona fide refugees" will be sent back summarily "to their persecution or death" by the regime that seized power in Haiti last September. They said that "political conditions in Haiti are rapidly worsening. . . . Scores have been killed and arrested in the last few weeks alone."
The lawyers said, for example, that a refugee given the name of "M. Bertrand" to protect his identity was returned to Haiti by U.S. authorities and within 48 hours "was beaten savagely by three Haitian military officers, and his left arm was severely fractured."
Countering the administration claim that refugees had a chance to gain U.S. asylum if they would go to see U.S. diplomats in Port-au-Prince, the refugees' attorneys said only 82 of the 9,000 who have applied there have gained asylum.
By contrast, they said, about one out of every three Haitian refugees granted review of their status after being picked up at sea has been found to have a potential claim for asylum.
Before the pick-up-and-return policy was ordered by President Bush May 24, the administration followed a policy of picking up refugees at sea and then taking them to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for preliminary asylum screening.
The refugees' attorneys disputed a claim by State Department officials that members of the staff of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been able to seek out U.S. officials in Haiti without being watched and without any difficulty. The refugee attorneys said Mr. Aristide's bodyguards have had their asylum claims turned down by U.S. aides in Port-au-Prince.