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US in Tight Spot Over Haitian Boat People

THE unprecedented hemispheric pressure to reinstate Haiti's ousted president carries a price tag, and the US is getting the bill.Congress, the courts, and the State Department struggled this week with the growing dilemma of what to do with a wave of impoverished Haitian boat people fleeing economic and political turmoil. US immigration policy drafted in the era of the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier doesn't meet the demands of a changed Haitian political situation. In the month following the Sept. 30 military overthrow of Haiti's first democratically elected president, the Organization of American States organized a trade embargo to put teeth into efforts to reinstate President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. (With critical oil supplies blocked, Haiti was expected to be without electricity by the weekend, reports from Haiti said.) After the coup, there were no interdictions until Oct. 28 when the Coast Guard found a rickety boat with 19 Haitians on its way to the US. The number of boat people in the weeks since then has grown sharply to 3,000, or more than twice the number interdicted during the first nine months of the year. Lacking a policy for what to do with them, the Coast Guard has kept most of them aboard its cutters. "We'll be swamped if it continues at this pace" and with no place to take the Haitians, one senior State D epartment official told the Monitor.

Policy suspended Long-standing US immigration policy has been to return Haitians as economic rather than political refugees. But that policy was suspended this month on the reasoning that it wasn't consistent to return Haitians to a country whose government the US condemned as outlaw. At the same time, lest it serve as an invitation for more Haitians to take to the seas in unsafe boats, the US refused to bring the refugees to the US, says Robert Gelbard, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. An estimated 50 percent of those who attempt the journey are believed to perish, he says. Several Haitian refugee organizations and some congressmen criticized US immigration policy for Haitians as racist. Because Haitian refugees are poor and black, the US concludes automatically that they could only be migrants seeking less wretched economic status, says Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees. Mr. McCalla notes, for example, that the US probably would not have closed its doors so decisively on Soviet citizens fleeing dictatorship if the Soviet hard-liners' coup had succeeded. By Sunday, State Department efforts had failed to turn up any third countries to host refugees, and the problem reached critical mass because there weren't enough cutters for all the people. The US repatriated 538 Haitians Monday but the next day was temporarily barred by federal court order from continuing to repatriate.

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Hope for regional safe haven Then on Wednesday, Belize, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela agreed to host refugees. But they would take a total of only 550 Haitians among them. The concept of regional safe haven remains the State Department's main hope for a short-term solution to the problem, said one State Department official, who believed the court order banning repatriation may have encouraged third countries to take in Haitians. In Congress, Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York introduced a resolution that would suspend the interdiction and repatriation process and grant temporary protective status to Haitians. At a Wednesday hearing of the House Subcommittee on International Law, Immigration, and Refugees, the Bush administration was criticized for not having adequate contingency plans for the influx of boat people - a problem that a decade ago cost the US and Florida hundreds of millions of dollars in social programs when the Mariel boatlift brought a wave of Cubans here.

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