- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

MIAMI (AP) Six persons were charged yesterday with trying to smuggle more than 200 Haitians into the country aboard a rickety freighter. Activists, meanwhile, urged Gov. Jeb Bush to prevent authorities from deporting the Haitians, who jumped overboard and dashed into a roadway to flag down cars.

The White House said President Bush would not weigh in on any asylum question.

The Haitians swarmed ashore near downtown Miami after their freighter ran aground Tuesday, eight days after they left their impoverished island seeking a better life.

Twenty-one had to be rescued after jumping from the overloaded boat into water 10- to 12-feet deep and becoming too fatigued to make it to shore, Coast Guard Lt. Jeffrey Smith said. Border Patrol agents rounded up 208 others, including young children.

It wasn't immediately clear who the six persons charged yesterday were or how they were arrested.

Unlike Cubans who reach dry land, Haitian immigrants usually are denied asylum in the United States and sent back to their homeland.

Rep. Carrie P. Meek, Florida Democrat, yesterday demanded that Gov. Jeb Bush call his brother, the president, and persuade him to treat the Haitians like Cuban refugees.

"Those Haitians are standing on dry land. You can do it," Mrs. Meek told the governor, who is running for re-election.

Gov. Bush told Mrs. Meek he agrees that the Haitians should be released until their asylum request is heard. He had said earlier that he spoke to White House officials and was assured the Haitians would receive "fair and decent treatment."

"There should be equal treatment and that's my position," he said.

"If Bush could champion the issue, he could shift the balance in the election," said Jean Robert Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. "The time for lip service is over."

However, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the president would not get involved despite any political pressure that may arise.

"If the question is, because it's six days before an election should the president start to interfere with the actual workings of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the answer is no whether it's one day, six days or 364 days before an election," Mr. Fleischer said. "The laws of our land are the laws of our land and they should be enforced by the proper authorities."

Thousands of Haitians each year risk dangerous voyages aboard rickety, crowded boats to flee the crushing poverty in their homeland, the hemisphere's poorest country, where two-thirds of the population is unemployed or underemployed and most people survive on less than $1 a day.

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