Clinton's refugee shuffle

July 14, 1994|By Derrick Z. Jackson

Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba -- AS HAITIAN mothers and babies peered out from behind barbed wire, the commander of refugee operations here, Mike Pearson, pleaded with photographers not to use the barrier for dramatic effect. "I want to take it down or cover it up," Colonel Pearson said. "This is a humanitarian mission. But I need some wire as a control measure between single men, single women and families."

Even as Colonel Pearson begged for journalistic mercy, six soldiers unfurled fresh rolls of wire.

Nothing can cover up the sham shuffle of the refugees. After the overthrow in 1991 of Haiti's democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haitians fled by boat.

President Bush, knowing that a wave of black refugees was unacceptable to many voters, had the Coast Guard intercept them and herd them to Guantanamo Bay.

From 1991 to 1993, 36,000 refugees came to the United States. About 11,000, or 30 percent, were found to have a credible fear of persecution in Haiti. Those 11,000 came to the United States. The remaining 70 percent were sent back.

Mr. Bush claimed to be so overwhelmed with refugees that he ordered the Coast Guard to return them all to Haiti with no hearing for political asylum. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton promised to reverse that policy. President Clinton kept the Bush policy intact for 17 months.

Finally, humiliated this spring by Randall Robinson's hunger strike, Mr. Clinton announced that refugees would get hearings. But with last week's announcement that any new Haitian boat refugees will not be allowed asylum in the United States, Mr. Clinton goes even further than Mr. Bush ever did. At least Mr. Bush let some Haitians into the United States. Mr. Clinton is now telling Haitians who were victims of beatings and torture that they may see the lamp of our Coast Guard cutters but not the Statue of Liberty's golden door.

As it was, refugees got one interview and a review by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They had no right to a lawyer. There are no U.S.-based Haitian advocacy groups here to keep the INS honest. "We let everybody tell their story until they are exhausted," said Seth Libby, who runs the screening process. "Nobody is being told 'Hurry up, you've only got five minutes.' "

Mr. Clinton's decision added a cruel irony to the process. He already was holding the refugees to a higher standard of proof than Mr. Bush did. Mr. Bush wanted a "credible" fear of persecution, perhaps because some relatives or friends were beaten or killed. Mr. Clinton wanted a "well-founded fear" that they would be direct targets of repression.

The math worked out even. Even though Haiti's violence and misery were rising fast, Mr. Clinton was allowing in only the same percentage of refugees that Mr. Bush allowed in, 30 percent.

The rejection rate of 70 percent was hideous compared with the complete welcome mat for refugees from Cuba and other nations. While the U.S. Embassy in Haiti approved only 4,000 of 58,000 applicants for political asylum over the last 2 1/2 years, the United States last year alone let in nearly 50,000 people from the former Soviet Union and 31,000 from Vietnam.

"Haitians are being treated like savages," said Steve Forester of the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami. "It is because they are black. We're the ones who've let the military destroy the country and destroy the jobs, then we turn around and call most of the people in boats 'economic' refugees and send them back. If we were honest about our role in making them so miserable that they would risk dying at sea to get to the United States, we would be accepting 90 percent of them."

Mr. Clinton's refugee shuffle is more noteworthy for its doublespeak than its humanitarianism. The Coast Guard operations are called "rescues." The people from the INS who review refugee claims are called "quality assurance officers." Reporters are asked to view barbed wire as a white picket fence.

Haiti is so unstable that at the current pace of up to 3,000 refugee "rescues" a day, Guantanamo will soon be at its capacity of 12,500 refugees. The agreement of several Caribbean nations to take on several thousand refugees is only a stopgap.

The announcement of troop movements suggests that Mr. Clinton has finally recognized that the only way to end the refugee issue is to end the crisis in Haiti. If he does not, he will have taken Mr. Bush's policy and made it worse. He will have rejected refugees and left them stranded on unfamiliar islands in the Caribbean.

In the past year the United States has greeted 85,000 people from the former Soviet Union, Vietnam and Cuba with open arms. Haitians fleeing a terror that the United States helped create deserve the same embrace.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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