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Justice for Haitian Refugees Becomes Rallying Cry

By Joretta Purdue*

Speakers pictured below:
* Edwidge Danticat, Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon and Marleine Bastien
* Bishop Thomas Wenski; U.S. Rep. John Conyers,Jr.; Candace Jean.
* John McCullough with Ted Kennedy.

WASHINGTON (UMNS) – Haitians suffer life-threatening horrors at home, and yet they face jail and forced return if they flee to the United States, according to advocates for changing U.S. policies toward refugees from the Caribbean island.

Three Conference SpeakersAn ambassador, U.S. elected officials, an actress and an author joined others, including advocates and service providers from religious and secular organizations, for a Feb. 5 conference sponsored by Church World Service, a relief ministry supported by 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations.

"We have a wide range of opinions on a number of issues," said the Rev. John L. McCullough, who heads the Church World Service staff, "but I think everyone represented here today shares at least three fundamental views: that Haiti deserves to be peaceful and prosperous, that it is neither, and this has practical and moral consequences for the United States that our policies must address."

Out of a strategy meeting that followed the morning conference came the decision to develop a national coalition of organizations concerned about the treatment of Haitian refugees and immigrants in the United States, particularly those who are detained by the U.S. government, said the Rev. Joan M. Maruskin, the Washington representative of the CWS Immigration and Refugee Program and a United Methodist clergywoman.

"America faces serious security risks; Haitian refugees are not among them," said McCullough, also a United Methodist. "We must develop appropriate polices in response to the situation in Haiti – policies that are consistent with our values as a compassionate nation, a beacon of democracy, a refuge for the oppressed."

McCullough pointed out that Haiti and the United States represent the two oldest independent republics in the Western Hemisphere. The 200th anniversary of Haiti, the first black republic, will be Jan. 1, 2004. Yet the relations between the two countries have often been strained.

Conference Audience"For decades we (in the United States) refused to recognize a country founded in a slave uprising while we still had slaves. The Haitian revolution played a major role in convincing the West that slavery must end," McCullough said.

The United States occupied Haiti from 1914 to 1934, and the Haitians resisted fiercely. Later, during the long Duvalier rule, U.S. policy floundered between sanctions and appeasement, McCullough said. In the 1980s, thousands of Haitians sought to escape to the United States, where millions from other countries had found refuge.

"We entered into an executive agreement with a dictatorship to return people fleeing from it with no meaningful opportunity to seek asylum. But they still came. We used detention as a deterrent. But they still came," he said.

Duvalier’s exit from power, assisted by the United States, was followed by five years of turmoil. In 1991, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, took office. Less than a year later, he was ousted by the military, and tens of thousands fled.

"Many of them did have valid claims (for asylum), and in May 1992, the door was slammed shut, and the United States reverted to the Duvalier-era policy of interdiction," McCullough said. "Full refugee screening was attempted in 1994 aboard a converted hospital ship just outside Kingston, Jamaica. Again, so many were found to be bona fide refugees that the program was shut down, and those who were fleeing were merely offered ‘safe haven,’ such as detention in miserable camps on Guantanamo."

"We are in a moment of crisis," said Luigi Einaudi, a U.S. diplomat and an assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States. The nation’s May 2000 election has been disputed, and the OAS negotiated a resolution that calls for the creation of an electoral council in Haiti and external oversight for a new election. "Nobody involved has fully met their obligations under that resolution."

Joshua Sears, the ambassador from the Bahamas, said that migration is often propelled by problems at home. His country has received many of the Haitian refugees.

"Migration in itself is mutually beneficial if it is orderly and regulated," he said. In recent times, Haitian emigration has been a result of the instability within Haiti. The solution, he said, lies in economic development for Haiti and giving people access to education and health care.

John McCullough with Sen. Ted KennedySen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has a long-standing interest in immigration, said the U.S. handling of Haitian refugees is not fair or just.

"A year ago, the Department (of Justice) implemented a policy that subjects Haitian asylum seekers to mandatory detention upon arrival to the U.S.," he declared. "Asylum seekers from other nations were eligible for release while they pursue their asylum claims, but not those from Haiti."

In response to criticism, the department said it would detain all foreign nationals arriving by boat, he said. "But in practice, the policy still unfairly singles out Haitians for harsher treatment, since the overwhelming majority of (those nationals) are Haitian." He added that placing Haitians on an accelerated court schedule worsened the situation.

"As violence continues in Haiti, these cases have literally life-and-death consequences," he said.

"The current situation is intolerable," Kennedy said. "The bigotry is blatant. … Mandatory detention and arbitrary hearings are contrary to our country’s basic principles. And in the world today, by failing to protect innocent Haitians desperately fleeing prosecution, we are failing in our responsibility to the world community at the very time when we can least afford to jeopardize or lose the respect of other nations."

Catholic Bishop Thomas Wenski has ministered to Haitians in the Miami area for more than 20 years. He said a letter from the Catholic bishops to the president protested the "indefensible and inequitable" practices of the administration in regard to Haitians. "Interdiction on the high seas and forced return is against international law."

He noted that some Haitians are being held even after receiving asylum because the Immigration and Naturalization Service has indicated an intention to appeal the judge’s decision.

Wenski’s assertion that many of the Haitians are denied access to legal counsel was supported by Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center and other lawyers trying to work with the Haitians. Translation is a huge problem, she said.

Families are separated. Family members are not allowed visits from friends and relatives who already reside in the United States – or even with spouses and children who were on the same boat.

Children from an October 2002 boat are currently locked in a motel under armed guard without exercise – and until mid-December, they had no schooling, Little said. Since the schooling is restricted to those between 6 and 17, younger children and an 18-year-old are kept locked in their rooms 24 hours a day. Initially, she found that two 3-year-olds had not been given a change of clothing in their first 10 days in the country.

Other speakers described "the deteriorating human rights situation" in Haiti, its 60 percent unemployment, widespread illiteracy, lack of clean drinking water and infrequent availability of electricity, as well as violent assaults, executions and rapes that are not prosecuted by the police and seem to have police involvement.

"Right now, leadership in Haiti means holding the streets," said Diana Paul Parks of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. She pointed out that her colleague, Pierre Esperance, who serves the organization in Haiti, risked not only his own "disappearance" but also that of his family for attending the Feb. 5 event. He has already been shot once.

Esperance, through an interpreter, said Haitian police are implicated in a number of assassinations and that the authorities "are defending the indefensible." He urged the international community to find a way to continue and increase aid in the areas of health and education.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) challenged the participants in the conference to organize, to hold a hearing and press conference, and to address the State Department and the White House about U.S. treatment of Haiti and Haitians.

"Everyone in the world should hear us," he declared.

"We need to get a little bit confrontational," urged Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). "We need to call (Attorney General) John Ashcroft out."

Representatives of various advocacy agencies – including Justice for Our Neighbors, a group associated with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries – subsequently decided to form a coalition to work for justice in the treatment of Haitian immigrants. Maruskin said that Church World Service would take the lead in developing strategy.

The coalition outlined four special concerns, she reported. The first is a focus on the detention of children, who are often held without knowing where their parents are, without access to fresh air and exercise, clothing and mental and physical health care. Another great concern is for Haitians who have been granted asylum but are still being held in custody, she said.

Advocacy groups have asked that families not be separated, but they are, and this is another practice that the coalition hopes to change.

"Haitians are treated differently than those from other countries," Maruskin noted.

She said the group hopes to develop a national movement to right the injustices in the Haitian immigration process.


*Purdue is United Methodist News Service’s Washington news director.  Story courtesy of UMNS.

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