- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

Some White House policies are proudly announced. Others just sort of ooze out when nobody is looking.

That was how the Bush administration quietly but radically changed its refugee policy last December to discriminate against Haitian asylum-seekers in ways that do not apply to anyone else.

Asked about the disparity in his Thursday news conference, President Bush said he thought "the immigration laws ought to be the same for Haitians and everybody else, except for Cubans."

Well, pardon me, Mr. President, but the laws already are the same. Yet, for the past year, your administration has been treating Haitians worse than any other immigrant group.

Under the new policy that the Bush administration imposed after a large boatload of Haitians landed in Florida last December, asylum-seekers from Haiti are locked up for months without a bond hearing. Most of those 187 Haitian refugees remain locked up almost a year later.

Out of the sight of most Americans, they also remained mostly out of mind until the nationally televised sight of 220 more Haitians jumping ship into Miami harbor revived many memories two days before Halloween.

It also should remind Americans of how inevitably the instability of an impoverished and embattled country like Haiti spills over onto its neighbors' shores, including ours, whether we Americans pay attention to it or not.

News coverage and commentaries do not help the public understand the Haitian boat people issue when they compare the shabby treatment inflicted on Haitian boat people with the preferential treatment awarded to Cuban refugees.

Let's give the discredit to where it is due. The Haitian boat people issue is a conflict between the shabby way our policy treats asylum-seekers from Haiti vs. the fair way it treats those from everyplace else.

In December, the Bush administration quietly created three distinct refugee policies. At one extreme are those fortunate Cuban refugees who, upon their arrival on dry U.S. land, receive fast-track preferential treatment under what's left of this nation's Cold War crusade to topple Fidel Castro.

In the middle is just about everybody else. Asylum-seekers from Colombia, Zimbabwe, Iraq, North Korea and elsewhere are routinely released from custody on bond, once the Immigration and Naturalization Service has determined they have a credible fear of persecution if they are returned to their homeland.

But not Haitians. Set off at the poor end of American hospitality, Haitian asylum-seekers have been detained without any right to bond hearings until their cases are heard.

President Bush's brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, didn't like this. It played havoc with his relations with South Florida's economically thriving Haitian community.

But his biggest Haitian headache was not to come until a couple of days before Halloween and a week before Election Day when live television caught the latest boatload jumping from a wooden freighter into shallow waters and scrambling onto a major highway, tying up traffic and startling the heck out of afternoon drivers.

Quicker than you could say "homeland security," Rep. Carrie Meek, Florida Democrat, confronted Gov. Bush and demanded that he "call your brother," the president, "and ask him to release those Haitians."

The startled Jeb responded that he already had talked to his brother about the "unfairness" of the policy. He later announced that he had heard from Washington that the administration was looking for a solution, although, "I don't know if they're going to do anything."

Some defenders of Mr. Bush have decided it is more appropriate to criticize Mr. Meek, the Congressional Black Caucus and anybody else who has supported Haiti's President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. ("The Black Caucus' boat people," sneered the headline on an anti-Meek editorial in the Wall Street Journal.)

Mr. Aristide, you may recall, was restored to power eight years ago with the help of U.S. troops sent in by President Bill Clinton at the Black Caucus' urging to oust the military junta that had overthrown the democratically elected Mr. Aristide.

But, as I found during my own reporting from Port-au-Prince last summer, it's hard to say just how much Mr. Aristide is truly in charge these days.

Paranoid, perhaps as a result of having been ousted once, he has given too free of a hand to the grass-roots "Popular Organizations" who revere him but also have created roving bands of paramilitary squads led by warlords who terrorize anyone who displeases them.

Mr. Aristide's American critics call for his removal but offer no clue as to who might replace him. His opposition includes some of the same brutal forces that overthrew democracy before.

Neither the INS, the Justice Department nor the White House has presented much of a justification for the new Haitian detention policy. That lack of accountability has left Haitian-Americans and others to wonder whether it might be racially motivated.

Gee, I wonder where they get that idea.

No, there are no easy diplomatic solutions for Haiti. But, as Mr. Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, has said, one does not provide solutions in foreign policy so much as one must constantly and relentlessly manage problems.

Establishing democratic rule in Haiti was a big problem. The maintenance of democracy there calls for more attention and management from the United States. A great nation looks for ways to help its weak neighbors, not just discriminate against them.

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