Treatment of Haitian immigrants is decried

Lawmakers demand explanation of U.S. policy on asylum requests


WASHINGTON - Lawmakers voiced dismay and even anger yesterday as experts told how U.S. immigration officials treat Haitian migrants caught off Florida as virtual criminals, throwing them into cramped lockups, dividing families and hindering access to lawyers.

In two hearings on Capitol Hill, activists for Haitian migrants said U.S. officials offer such harsh treatment to Haitian asylum seekers that it appears to be discrimination.

An array of Democratic and Republican legislators, who rarely see eye-to-eye, listened at separate hearings of a Senate subcommittee on immigration and a House human rights panel, and demanded an explanation of federal policy on Haitians' asylum requests.

"Haitians have been singled out for more restrictive treatment. Such a policy appears to violate U.S. law," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.

"I really hope we can stop this mistreatment of one group," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican.

Both hearings were sparked by a once-secret policy of the Immigration and Naturalization Service that has left scores of Haitians languishing in jail cells in Florida and Pennsylvania. The policy, which began in December, orders that all Haitian asylum seekers arriving by boat remain under detention while their requests for political asylum are weighed. Other nationalities are not singled out this way.

In some cases, Haitians share jail cells with criminals for months after demonstrating to the INS a "credible fear" of persecution in their country, activists and lawyers said.

A senior State Department official, Thomas Shannon, defended the Bush administration strategy as critical to protecting Florida from a tidal wave of Haitian migration.

"Given the threat illegal migration poses to our national security, we support sending a strong message to the Haitian people that they do not enjoy automatic entry into the United States," Shannon, the deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, told the House subcommittee.

Haiti, a nation of 8 million people that is the poorest in this hemisphere, is mired in political deadlock over flawed congressional elections in 2000. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his opposition have resisted international efforts to resolve the deadlock, and Haitian rural areas are facing turmoil. Haiti has barely 3,000 police officers, and armed gangs loyal to local political bosses are terrorizing some provincial towns and cities.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, described conditions at Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade County as "a nightmare" and rebuked the INS for dividing Haitian families.

"The separation of mothers from their children is disgraceful," he said.

Lawyers seeking to help the Haitians "have faced obstacle after obstacle to get meaningful access to our clients," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

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