The future of an inhumane but effective U.S. policy toward Haitian boat people rests on resolution of a legal issue from never-never land. It is whether folks who are not citizens are protected by U.S. law in international waters, or whether the U.S. may violate its law protecting them so long as it does so in those waters.
From the September coup ousting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide until May 24, the Coast Guard picked up 36,980 Haitian boat people on the high seas. After hearings to determine their status as political exiles in fear of persecution, or mere economic refugees seeking prosperity, the Coast Guard returned 27,242 to Haiti and admitted most of the remaining 9,738 to the United States as political refugees.
But on May 24, President Bush issued a new policy ordering the Coast Guard to return them to Haiti before interviews. Had they reached U.S. soil, U.S. immigration law would prevent this. The legal question is whether this protection from persecution applies to those who are in U.S. hands but not U.S. jurisdiction. Federal District Judge Sterling Johnson found the president's order unconscionable and hypocritical but legal. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, on Wednesday, reversed him. Now it is up to the Supreme Court.