By Carl Hiaasen, Miami Herald
Feb 5, 2006
When the U.S. Coast Guard recently repatriated a group of Cuban migrants who’d landed at an old bridge in the Keys, lawmakers from South Florida implored the White House to reconsider its bizarre ”wet-foot, dry-foot” policy.
Under current rules, Cubans who make landfall in the United States usually are allowed to stay, while those intercepted before they reach shore are typically sent home.
Haitian migrants must have been discouraged by the public outcry that followed the Seven Mile Bridge incident, knowing that a Haitian landing would have drawn no such attention in Washington, D.C.
Like those before it, the Bush administration doesn’t care whether the feet of arriving Haitians are wet or dry. They’re going back, one way or another.
It’s no secret that U.S. immigration policy is a farce — irrational, inconsistent, ineffective and discriminatory. And no nationality has been more consistently singled out for exclusion than the Haitians.
A prime example is the Department of Homeland Security’s continuing refusal to grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitian migrants awaiting deportation hearings.
The TPS program was designed to provide an interim safe haven for undocumented immigrants who would otherwise be sent home to dangerous conditions caused by armed conflict, natural disasters or other extraordinary circumstances.
Haiti is a textbook case for TPS. Lashed by hurricanes, the desperately impoverished nation is again being ravaged by political violence, daily kidnappings and marauding street gangs.
The situation is so perilous that U.S. travelers have been warned to stay away. American Embassy workers are forbidden from going out at night, and their children under age 21 are supposed to return to the United States.
A bloody snapshot of life in Haiti: Last summer, a U.S.-sponsored soccer match in Port-au-Prince ended with approximately 10 deaths when gang members and riot police attacked the Haitian crowd.
Incredibly, Bush officials insist that migrants from Haiti don’t need protected status. The place is too deadly for tourists and diplomats — but not for the Haitians we’re sending home.
The TPS program was meant to be humanitarian, but also impartial. In the past, undocumented aliens from war-torn Liberia, Sudan and Somalia have been given temporary protected status.
After Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998, TPS was granted to thousands of undocumented Hondurans and Nicaraguans here. It was offered again to Salvadorans fighting deportation, after a series of killer earthquakes racked their homeland in 2001.
TPS isn’t an amnesty; it’s an 18-month window of safe haven, which is then reviewed periodically. Those immigrants allowed to remain here must register with Homeland Security and pay income taxes during their stay.
More than 300,000 Central American TPS designates are still working in the United States and sending money home. Some immigration reformists want the TPS program scuttled, or absorbed into guest-worker legislation backed by President Bush.
Whatever form the new rules might take, it’s unrealistic to hope that Haitians will be treated as equals with other migrants.
The disparity is painfully glaring here in South Florida, where immigration policy plays out as as ”white-foot, black-foot.” Boatloads of Cuban migrants are joyously welcomed if they reach shore, but Haitians are quietly processed and shipped back.
Officially the U.S. government has explained the double standard by saying that the Cubans are political refugees while the Haitians are fleeing here purely for economic reasons. The two issues are patently inseparable, so the distinction is a sham. Almost everyone who sneaks into this country is seeking the opportunity to make a decent living. Often that requires escaping from inept, crooked or oppressive governments.
Every year an estimated 700,000 immigrants from all over the world illegally cross the U.S. borders, and few are true political refugees. By far the largest single group is from an ally nation and established democracy — Mexico.
The schizoid actions of our own leaders helped cause the current disaster in Haiti. After a coup we sent troops to re-install its first elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide; then we sat on our hands while his government unraveled in corruption and rebellion.
Much of the violence throttling Haiti is between supporters and enemies of the exiled Aristide, and is pegged to the long-delayed elections now set for this Tuesday. More bedlam and bloodshed are certain.
Immigration lawyers around the United States have filed motions to halt all deportation proceedings against Haitians because of chaotic, life-threatening conditions there. It remains to be seen whether any judges will acknowledge the hypocrisy of the present policy.
It makes no sense to offer a haven to Somalians and Sudanese, and turn our backs on a human calamity unfolding in our own hemisphere. Tragically, there isn’t much common sense or decency to be found in the history of how Haitian boat people have been treated.
It doesn’t matter whether they land at a bridge or a beach or the steps of the Statue of Liberty. They still can’t get in.