Clinton seeks policy to avert flood of refugees Hundreds may flee Haiti in hopes he will ease entry

January 06, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Faced with a tide of Haitian boat peopl ready to flood into the United States, President-elect Bill Clinton met with his foreign policy advisers yesterday to find a way to avert the first possible crisis of his administration.

Thousands of Haitians are reportedly preparing to leave the poorest island in the Western Hemisphere in the hope that the Clinton administration will be more sympathetic to their plight than the Bush administration has been.

During the campaign, Mr. Clinton criticized the Bush policy of declaring most Haitians ineligible for entry to the United States as refugees and returning them to Haiti. He said he would offer them a chance to establish that they had a genuine fear of persecution -- the international norm for refugee status.

Mr. Clinton must now find a way of keeping his word without opening the floodgates for thousands of hopeful boat people. He is expected to make a strong commitment to the return of democracy to Haiti, which has been under military dictatorship since Gen. Raoul Cedras overthrew the island's elected president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991.

The New York Times reported that Clinton's transition aides have presented him with a policy that would set up an enlarged system to process asylum cases in Haiti, on the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in other countries in the region.

The policy would be announced before the inauguration and would later be made formal in an executive order, the Times reported.

As part of the new asylum process, the executive order would substantially increase the number of consular and immigration officers to expedite processing of the applications, the newspaper quoted Mr. Clinton's aides as saying. The order would encourage the active participation of private refugee organizations and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the executive order, Mr. Clinton would also emphasize that he will enforce current immigration policy, which prevents Haitians escaping poverty from seeking asylum in the United States and offers protection only to those fleeing political persecution, the Times said.

By committing himself to an end to the brutalities of military rule, Mr. Clinton would hope to stem the human tide feared headed for Florida.

Even as he and his advisers met, a boat carrying 352 Haitians arrived yesterday in Florida.

Another 150 of their countrymen continued a hunger strike in a Miami processing facility to protest what they regard as racist discrimination against Haitians, nearly all of whom are black.

Mr. Clinton discussed the crisis yesterday with Vice President-elect Al Gore, Secretary of State-designate Warren M. Christopher, Defense Secretary-designate Les Aspin, and national security adviser Anthony Lake.

George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Clinton's spokesman, said an announcement on Haiti would probably be made before the president-elect is sworn into office two weeks from today .

"Obviously it's something we have to do relatively soon," he said. "The governor has been looking at the issue throughout the transition. He will have some announcement to make soon."

U.S. embassy observations and Coast Guard overflights have confirmed press reports of hundreds of boats being built along the Haitian coast.

Mr. Bush signed an executive order in May for the interdiction on the high seas of the Haitian boats and for the return to Haiti of their occupants without hearings. It was this policy that Mr. Clinton criticized, and that lawyers for the Haitians claim violates international refugee law.

"He [Mr. Clinton] has to walk a very fine line of restoring the U.S. to observing international law but also not to encourage the outflow. Clearly, there could be a lot of people trying to get out," said Bill O'Neill, deputy director of the New York-based Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, which has challenged the Bush interdiction policy in court.

The Bush administration has worked for months to try to restore democracy. It has joined a trade embargo against Haiti and is working with both the United Nations and the Organization of American States to pressure a return to democracy.

Washington has also opened its embassy in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, to applications from Haitians seeking refugee status, something that had only been done at U.S. diplomatic posts in Cuba, Vietnam and Russia.

Among options would be to impose a blockade on the impoverished island, or even to intervene militarily to restore Father Aristide to power.

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