Haitian-refugee advocates unhappy with Clinton For now, send-them-back policy is still in effect

January 15, 1993|By New York Times News Service

MIAMI -- For advocates of Haitian refugees, President-elect Bill Clinton's announcement that he plans to temporarily continue a Bush administration policy of the summary return of Haitian boat people falls just short of an outright betrayal.

For weeks, refugee advocates who have urged a more compassionate treatment for Haitians fleeing their country have

spoken almost giddily of their expectations of dramatic policy changes.

"Only three weeks ago, they were promising that whatever was announced would be to our satisfaction," a leader of one human-rights group based in New York said of the assurances by Mr. Clinton's advisers.

Instead, after having used such terms as "illegal" and "immoral" to describe the Bush administration practice of sending refugees back to Haiti without screening them to determine which of them may have had legitimate political reasons for fleeing, Mr. Clinton, fearing a huge new outflow from Haiti, chose to maintain the program as the most effective way to discourage an exodus.

While Mr. Clinton, in a message addressed to Haitians and Haitian-Americans, yesterday portrayed the policy decision as driven by concerns for people drowning at sea, advocates for those seeking asylum saw his decision as a victory of what one refugee lawyer called the "professional bureaucracy" that shaped and defended Mr. Bush's approach.

Others said it represented a caving in to pressures from politicians, especially from Florida, who had begun a noisy campaign warning of the perils they faced from a surge of poor immigrants.

"It is a rehash of the old rationale of the Bush administration," said Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, in New York, speaking of the motives invoked for the interdiction policy. "Clinton is starting off on the wrong foot. Whatever else he is doing, he is behaving as if we can ignore the law where Haitians are concerned."

On March 2, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a case that will decide the legality of the practice of summary repatriation.

"What are Clinton's lawyers going to do, go before the court and say they had only denounced this same policy as illegal in the past for campaign purposes?" Ms. McCalla asked.

Seeking to dampen such criticisms, a Clinton transition aide who insisted on not being identified said the new administration had faced the prospect of "50,000 to 100,000 Haitians seeking to come here in the next few weeks," and had been forced to take an unpalatable action because "there is no other policy or plan directly in place to deal with this issue."

The aide also said that the Clinton administration would "be doing everything we can to make it safer for Haitians in Haiti."

He then outlined a number of measures, including stepped up processing of asylum requests in the capital and at new consular offices to be established in the countryside that he said would prevent a new rush of boat people while providing a safe avenue for those in genuine need of refuge.

"People who truly fear persecution don't come into processing centers, they remain in hiding or they flee," said Harold Koh, a Yale University law professor who will argue the Haitians' case before the Supreme Court.

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