WASHINGTON -- President Bush's legally and politically beleaguered policy on Haitian refugees got some relief yesterday as the Supreme Court agreed to listen to a plea that the White House action is within the law.
Under the policy declared by the president in May, refugees fleeing from Haiti are picked up at sea by U.S. Coast Guard ships and brought back home without getting a chance to ask for asylum.
But that policy has come under a twin attack, one judicial -- a federal appeals court decision finding it illegal -- and one political -- a strong denunciation of it by Mr. Bush's Democratic rival for the White House, Gov. Bill Clinton.
The policy will not actually come up for review in the Supreme Court until after next month's presidential election. The first two weeks in December are the earliest that the court would hold a hearing on Haitian refugees' rights.
If Mr. Clinton wins the election, one of his first tasks will be to decide whether to follow through with his complaints about the policy by stopping it, a move that could simply take the issue away from the Supreme Court.
Since the policy exists only under presidential order, Mr. Clinton could change it and simply tell the Supreme Court that there is nothing left for it to decide. With no one to defend it, the court would be likely to pass up review.
The refugee return policy, found by the federal appeals court to be a violation of both U.S. law and an international protocol on refugees, has all but stopped the flight of Haitians from their homeland despite widespread reports that many fear persecution under the military regime in power there for the past year.
U.S. Coast Guard vessels pick up any Haitians believed to be fleeing, and return them immediately to shore. No review of their pleas for asylum can occur at sea; that can be done only at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.
About 37,000 Haitian boat people have been intercepted and returned to their troubled homeland.
Before Mr. Bush switched to this approach on May 23, Coast Guard vessels had brought Haitians to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for preliminary screening of asylum pleas. About one out of every three Haitians there was found to have a believable fear of persecution -- and thus a potential claim for asylum in the U.S.
But after the Guantanamo facility became heavily crowded with refugees, the president issued an order to stop the Haitians' flight well before they could reach any U.S. port or facility.
In a decision July 29, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City ordered an immediate end to the policy. That order, however, was interrupted temporarily by a preliminary Supreme Court order on Aug. 1, allowing the returns to continue.