The Clinton Administration’s policy of forcibly repatriating Haitian political refugees is unfair, inhumane and morally at odds with our country’s traditions. Haiti is in the throes of great terror. President Clinton has acknowledged as much by not permitting even armed U.S. soldiers to land there. The international community is withdrawing its heavily guarded representatives in their bulletproof vests. But what of the Haitians they leave behind, utterly defenseless against the repression of the reborn Tonton Macoutes?
And what of the Haitian asylum-seekers whose fragile boats are still being forced back ashore by the U.S. Coast Guard? These people are searched, fingerprinted and detained by the same Haitian police, led by the infamous Lieut. Col. Michel Francois, whose cruelty drove them to escape in the first place.
On September 22, shortly after the assassination of Antoine Izmery, the Coast Guard cutter Campbell returned 297 Haitians, the largest number in almost a year. A State Department cable reports that nine of the refugees were taken to a police station and questioned in a manner “designed to intimidate the returnees.” The cable does not say what happened to the nine, or to the others thrown back, under the watchful eye of the police and their “attaches,” into the streets. On October 28, fifteen more refugees were stopped at sea and returned. Eleven were arrested and sent to a notorious torture center. They have not been heard from since.
The Clinton Administration continues to claim that would-be Haitian refugees can apply for asylum in-country, at a U.S. office in downtown Port-au-Prince. In-country processing was inadequate at best, even when conditions were less extreme. Refugees had to emerge from hiding, travel public roads through military roadblocks, walk across a public plaza near a police barracks—many times, for repeated interviews with U.S. immigration officials. Today, with Haitians fleeing the capital by foot and on buses by the thousands, in-country processing is a cruel joke.
The Administration’s formal expressions of regret sur-rounding the murder of Justice Minister Guy Malary must have rung hollow to Haitians trapped by the military dictatorship. For if Malary had attempted to flee from his murderers by sea, the Coast Guard would have returned him to Haiti to be gunned down in the street.
It’s common for politicians to say—with justifiable pride—that ours is a country of immigrants. But Clinton has apparently decided that new immigrants, even those fleeing political persecution, are just not popular now—particularly black Haitians. President Clinton ought to worry less about doing what is popular and do what is morally right: Stop sending Haitian political refugees back to death.
Michael Ratner, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, was co-counsel in a Supreme Court case challenging the interdiction policy.