A once-steady stream of Haitian ''boat people'' illegally arriving in the United States has nearly been halted by methods now under serious attack as illegal and unfair.
In an attempt to discourage waves of Haitians from pounding the shores of south Florida, the US last year began locking them up as they arrived, pending deportation hearings, and using a Coast Guird cutter to intercept boatloads of Haitians heading to Florida.
Together, the two policies appear to be working. The flow of Haitians has been reduced from more than 1,000 a month to a handful, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Now both of these deterrent policies face challenges.
Miami US District Court Judge Eugene Spellman this week ordered the INS to stop locking up the Haitians and to release in an orderly fashion the nearly 2, 000 already held in Florida and other states. (On Wednesday, the judge also denied a government request for a stay of that order.)
As recently as last year, some 1,000 Haitians a month were arriving in south Florida after risky trips in overcrowded boats, often having run out of food and water. An unknown number died at sea; some were even thrown overboard near the Florida shore and drowned as smugglers sought to escape detection of their boats.
In earlier interviews with this newspaper, Haitians explained they had come to the US to escape grinding poverty. Haiti is one of the world's poorest countries.
But fleeing poverty alone is not considered enough reason to be granted legal entry to the US. Fleeing communism is usually considered reason enough, which is why Cubans are allowed to stay. But Haiti is not communist-controlled, although it has a repressive dictatorship.
Reagan administration officials argue that their actions to deter the influx of Haitians are fair and necessary to block at least one avenue by which illegal aliens enter the US.
Unanswered in the wake of the Judge Spellman's ruling are a number of questions:
Will the ruling bring a new wave of Haitians on Florida's shores?
Will Washington increase the aid it gives to states and local communities trying to feed and house aliens who are without jobs or homes?
Will it encourage more illegal entries from other nations, such as Cuba and Mexico?
Another group of would-be residents, Cubans, have been imprisoned for more than two years. Some 1,200 remain locked up in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta because of prior criminal or mental disturbance records in Cuba. Some may be released to sponsors; others may be held ''indefinitely,'' government officials say. Will this ruling eventually affect them?
These questions are important not only to illegal aliens, but to US citizens living in refugee-crowded cities such as Miami. Residents there complain of overcrowding of public facilities, rising crime rates, rising unemployment, and growing taxes to pay for emergency social services - often blaming ''illegals'' for such problems.
The order to release the Haitians follows a decision handed down by Judge Spellman in mid-June, which found that the way the US adopted its detention policy was illegal. The US should have given advance notice of its detention policy and given Haitians and others a chance to comment on the proposal, Judge Spellman ruled at the time.
He did not say the detention itself is illegal. Nor did he accept arguments by attorneys for the Haitians that the lockup policy is discriminatory against Haitians, since they are the ones most often locked up and for long periods. Some of the Haitians have been jailed for more than a year.
The order to release the Haitians to sponsors, under strict conditions, is being appealed by the US Justice Department. It is unlikely that any releases will occur until the appeal is heard by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
The policy of using a Coast Guard cutter to intercept Haitian boats also may face a challenge.
Marvin Frankel, former US District Court judge in New York, and now practicing as a lawyer, says the policy is ''an outrage,'' saying he may file suit to try to stop it.
''Insistence on unleashing all the government's resources to block these people . . . does have the appearance of an arbitrary and discriminatory course of action,'' he says.
''This administration is committed to enforcing those laws which past administrations have neglected,'' says Rudolph Giuliani, the Justice Department's key official in the Haitian control efforts. ''The result of that neglect has been illegal immigration on a shocking scale,'' he says.
The US says any Haitian who wants to go home will be flown home at government expense. US officials contend there is no danger to them when they return to Haiti.