Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Is racism behind treatment of Haitians?

Is racism behind treatment of Haitians?

By PAULINE ARRILLAGA,
AP National Writer
Sat Jul 29, 12:25 PM ET

The conference room at the law offices of Kurzban, Kurzban, Weinger and Tetzeli was crammed tight. Attorneys took turns at the microphone, their faces etched with frustration. The question they kept coming back to: Why?

Why, they asked, are Haitian immigrants singled out by the U.S. government for unequal treatment?

On this day, earlier in the year, the topic was temporary protected status, a designation the federal government can grant to foreigners allowing them to remain part time in the United States because of political unrest or environmental disasters at home.

Central Americans have repeatedly been granted protected status following hurricanes and earthquakes in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. Immigrants from Burundi, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan also enjoy such protections.

But Haitians have never obtained relief, despite decades of political turmoil, kidnappings and killings, and tribulations from tropical storms.

“Why aren’t Haitians good enough for the same basic protections?” demanded Steve Forester, of the group Haitian Women of Miami.

The question has long haunted Haitians seeking refuge in the United States. But underlying it is a more provocative issue, one that some say reflects how ill-designed and blatantly discriminatory the U.S. immigration system has become:

Are Haitian immigrants treated differently simply because they are black?

Ernso Joseph, an orphaned Haitian boy, was among hundreds of migrants who waded ashore after their sailboat grounded off Miami in 2002. Though just 15 when he arrived, Joseph spent almost three years battling Department of Homeland Security officials who insisted he was over 18 and eligible for deportation. Even after a judge granted him asylum in 2003, the government kept Joseph in detention while it appealed the decision.

Last summer, after a juvenile court ruled that Joseph was a minor, an immigration judge granted him permanent residency.

“I feel like I went through a lot, but it was worth it,” says Joseph, who lives in Miami and is going to school to learn English. Still, he says: “All the Haitians and all of the nationalities should get equal treatment when they come here.”

At the news conference earlier this year, 6-year-old Stephann Jasmin sat curled like a kitten in his mother Jeannette’s lap. Jeannette Jasmin lives under a deportation order, having escaped Haiti seven years ago after being kidnapped and beaten by political foes. Denied asylum in the United States, she and her American-born son face separation now.

Renes Ledix was there, too. His daughter, 28-year-old Renette, remains in detention after fleeing storm-ravaged Gonaives, Haiti, to join her family in Florida last year. Her father, a U.S. resident, sought to bring Renette here under provisions of a 1998 law allowing Haitians with legal status in the United States to apply for admission of their minor children.

However, Renette “aged out” � turned 21 � while the application was being processed, making her ineligible for admission. Now asylum has been refused, and officials won’t release Renette during her appeals process.

What accounts for the treatment of these Haitians?

Some, like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, have said Haitian restrictions are a matter of national security � that migrants from countries such as Pakistan have used Haiti as a staging point for entry into the United States.

Haiti is not on the list of nations the U.S. Border Patrol considers of “special interest” because of alleged sponsorship or support of terrorism.

But while Haitians are uniformly detained or turned back, at least 148 immigrants from Pakistan, Iran and other listed countries were arrested in 2004-05 � and then released on their own recognizance, according U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol apprehended 30,843 Brazilians at the Mexican border in fiscal year 2005, an increase of 258 percent over the previous year. And though Brazil’s border region with Paraguay and Argentina has been labeled a source of fundraising for radical Islamic groups by U.S. officials, more than 20,000 of these immigrants were released on their own recognizance.

Consciously or unconsciously, says Alex Stepick, director of the Immigration and Ethnicity Institute at Florida International University, the American policies on Haitians are driven by racism.

But such “specific, restrictive and repressive” policies, he says, also derive from negative stereotypes of Haitians as poor, uneducated and diseased because they hail from the Western Hemisphere’s most impoverished nation.

“We have this perception of Haitians being basically pathetic. It’s a misperception, and it simplifies the reality of Haiti extraordinarily,” says Stepick, whose book “Pride Against Prejudice” examines the backlash against Haitians who emigrate to America. “Nevertheless, it’s a perception that does lie behind many of the actions of the U.S. government and general public opinion.”

Immigration officials maintain race has nothing to do with their rules.

Jan Ting, an assistant commissioner for refugees, asylum and parole at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the first Bush Administration, acknowledges policies have singled out Haitians for “undeniably harsher treatment.” However, he holds that such measures are warranted to deter dangerous, and sometimes deadly, surges by sea.

“The government has a genuine fear of triggering a mass migration. Because Haiti is so close to the United States and because there are so many people in Haiti who would like to come to the United States, there is a fear … that if we treat people too nicely or too gently and give them release from detention too quickly that will simply encourage lots of people in Haiti to make the effort,” Ting says.

One such exodus occurred in 1980, when an estimated 25,000 Haitians joined 125,000 Cuban exiles in the outflow known as the Mariel boatlift. From 1991 to 1994, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted another 69,000 Haitians.

Since then, however, the numbers have plunged. From 2000 on, the Coast Guard has discovered more Dominicans making the journey by sea than Haitians: more than 14,000 compared with some 12,000. Interdictions of Cubans aren’t far behind, at more than 10,245.

Some Haitian rights advocates argue that the government’s deterrance-for-safety’s-sake argument also carries little weight in light of its open-door policy toward Cubans, allowing most Cubans who reach U.S. shores to apply for permanent residency one year later.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” says Marleine Bastien, who heads Haitian Women of Miami. “Does that mean that the Department of Homeland Security is more concerned about Haitians’ lives than Cubans’ lives?

“Is it a crime to want to flee for freedom, for safety?” she adds. “Why is it a crime for Haitians?”

Nowhere are these inequalities more glaring than in South Florida, where even Haitians and Cubans arriving on the same beach at the same time in the same manner are treated differently.

In April, authorities detained 44 Haitians after they landed on a beach north of Miami in a 45-foot cabin cruiser. Also aboard was a Cuban man. The Haitians were processed for removal.

The Cuban, said Border Patrol spokesman Steve McDonald, “by virtue of the fact that he’s Cuban and eligible to adjust his status under the Cuban Adjustment Act will … have the opportunity to request to stay.”

Copyright � 2006 The Associated Press.

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