US Policy on Haitian Immigrants Assailed
by Alice Gomstyn
Cries of protest, man of them in French, resounded in Dorchester yesterday as community leaders and Haitian advocates, including former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, rallied in support of more than 200 Haitian migrants placed in federal detention after swimming ashore in Miami earlier this week.
“We’re going to tell the federal government that our people cannot die quietly,” state Representative Marie St. Fleur, a Haitian immigrant, told a spirited crowd of more than 60 people, many of whom clutched miniature Haitian flags.
St. Fleur and Kennedy called for the Bush administration to change its treatment of the refugees.
Under a policy instituted last December, Haitians applying for asylum must now wait in US detention centers for their cases to be heard instead of being released to friends and relatives. The new rules are aimed at discouraging an exodus form the impoverished nation.
On Tuesday, 211 Haitian refugees reached the Florida coastline via a crowded wooden freighter that ran aground near downtown Miami. As they swam together, police and US immigration officials took them into custody and placed them in a federal detention center, sparking protests from Haitian-American groups nationwide.
Critics say the policy shift smacks of discrimination. They pointed to the government’s treatment of other immigrants, particularly Cuban refugees, who are free to travel and seek private legal counsel in their efforts to remain in the United States.
“What we need is for the administration to recognize that the policy is immoral,” Kennedy said.
He also called on the government to release $500 million in aid it promised to Haiti. The money was withheld to protest alleged corruption in Haiti elections. Advocates say the aid would bolster Haiti’s ailing economy and help stem the tide of immigrants seeking relief from widespread poverty.
“We’re calling on the world community to assist in the Haitian people as they are being engulfed in an economic nightmare,” said Pierre J. Imbert, executive director of the Haitian Multi-Service Center, which hosted the rally.
Reynolds Lucien, who came to the United States from Haiti with his family in 1980, stood at the edge of the crowd and listened intently to each speaker. After the rally, the 56-year-old Dorchester resident expressed bewilderment that the US government, and President Bush in particular, would block aid and “punish all Haitians” because of a flawed election system.
Bush, she said, had problems with his election, too.