From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Justice for Haitian refugees becomes rallying cry
Thu, 6 Feb 2003 15:15:28 -0600
Feb. 6, 2003 News media contact: Joretta Purdue7(202)
By Joretta Purdue*
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
An 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
"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
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.
"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
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
"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.
Sen. 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
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.
United Methodist News Service
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