Justices uphold sending refugees back to Haiti High court, citing tragedy of exodus, backs Clinton, 8-1

June 22, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, giving the Clinton administration a sweeping victory in its first major legal fight, upheld yesterday the strict policy of turning back all Haitian "boat people," even if they fear persecution from the military-backed regime in their homeland.

That policy was carried over from the Bush administration but stiffened by President Clinton with a floating naval blockade that at one point had 22 U.S. vessels off the Caribbean nation. A few Coast Guard vessels remain on duty there.

Earlier, the Reagan administration had pursued a less restrictive ban on the "boat people," allowing political refugees to make a claim for asylum before being sent back.

The court's new decision, reached with only a single dissenting vote, appears to give Mr. Clinton -- and future presidents -- almost unlimited authority to send vessels out onto the high seas hundreds of miles from America to stop anyone believed to be headed to U.S. shores without the government's permission.

At the same time, however, the ruling could mean added political costs for Mr. Clinton, because it highlights anew the Haitian refugee policy that has angered the Congressional Black Caucus and contributed to its growing discontent with a number of Clinton policies affecting minorities.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, the Baltimore Democrat who is now chairman of the Black Caucus, said: "The tragedy is not in the court ruling, but rather in the ongoing practice of this administration . . . with respect to the people of Haiti." He called on the president "to keep his word and hold true to the promise he made as a candidate."

Clinton called policy 'cruel'

As a candidate Mr. Clinton had promised last year that he would end the policy, calling it illegal and "cruel." But, five days before he became president in January, he switched, saying the forced-return order would continue as a "policy for this moment" to head off a new wave of potentially life-threatening voyages by refugees.

An administration lawyer defended the policy without qualification before the court in early March, and the court in yesterday's decision accepted all of the government's major legal points.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the decision, stressed that the court was not passing upon "the wisdom of the policy choices made by Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton."

Mr. Stevens also conceded that the legal challenges to the policy had "moral weight," but went on to conclude that it was entirely legal.

The court's opinion said that the forced repatriation of "fleeing refugees . . . to the one country they had desperately sought to escape" does not violate any legal duty the U.S. government has under a 1967 United Nations treaty that the U.S. signed in 1968.

The Stevens' opinion did suggest, though, that "such actions may . . . violate the spirit" of that treaty.

The court also concluded that the policy does not violate a 1980 federal law designed to make U.S. refugee law run parallel to the 1967 U.N. treaty.

Both the 1980 law and the U.N. treaty bar nations from sending refugees to a place where they would face persecution.

But both of those requirements, the court concluded, apply only to refugees who already had arrived in a country, not to those who might be seized on the high seas away from any country.

The court also concluded that a separate federal law, giving the president authority to impose "any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate" on the entry of aliens into the U.S., supports the forced return policy.

'Ample power'

"It is perfectly clear," Justice Stevens wrote, "that [this other law] grants the president ample power to establish a naval blockade that would simply deny illegal Haitian migrants the ability to disembark on our shores."

In orally announcing the ruling, Mr. Stevens referred to "the sad facts of this case," in which thousands of Haitian have fled their country, especially since a military-backed government took over September 1991.

Many have died at sea when their rickety vessels could not make the journey.

At the close of the court's opinion, Mr. Stevens quoted a lower court judge's comment:

"Although the human crisis is compelling, there is no solution to be found in a judicial remedy." That comment made it clear that the refugees would be able to turn only to the president or to Congress to get some relief.

President Clinton, like President George Bush before him, has been stressing diplomatic gestures to try to ease the plight of Haitians under the military regime that overturned the first freely elected government in Haiti's history, that of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the solitary dissenter to the new decision, said the ruling "flies in the face of the international obligations imposed by" the 1967 treaty.

The Haitian refugees, Mr. Blackmun added, "demand only that the United States, land of refugees and guardian of freedom, cease forcibly driving them back to detention, abuse, and death."

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