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Haitian Refugees Jump Ship and Walk to Florida Shore

Aired October 29, 2002 - 16:14   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We have some pictures we want to show you. These are live pictures coming from South Florida. We are told that these are Haitians who were on a boat in the water, off the coast of Florida, and they came across shallow water, swam or walked across shallow water, and came on land.
Well -- here you are, you can see the pictures from just a short time ago. Jumping off the boat, into the water and coming ashore around Key Biscayne in South Florida, down near Miami.

That boat is loaded with people and we don't know much more than this. This -- these are Miami area television stations, WSVN -- M -- N -- pictures that have just come into CNN. We're obviously trying to get a little more information on that, and we're going to bring you the pictures as soon as we have them.


WOODRUFF: We're going to stay with the story we started to tell you about just a moment ago. These are pictures from off the coast of South Florida, where we are told a boat full of Haitians, teeming with Haitians captures -- a camera captured pictures of the people on the boat jumping into the water and swimming through shallow water over to the shore. This is right around Key Biscayne.

Let's listen to the reporter with WSVN there in Florida.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes, they've enlisted the help of the folks from the coast guard base of -- at Miami Beach to send over a couple of their larger craft over here, just to make sure that anybody who is in the water is going to be assisted and brought back out of the water.

Right, the county works the park out here. The city handles most of Key Biscayne. The city of Key Biscayne has the volunteer fire department there along with the county that will assist in giving medical aid to anybody here who needs it.

And also, we understand already that INS and Border Patrol have been contacted and are efforting to get out here to assist in this rather large exodus, I guess you call it.

WOODRUFF: CNN's Mark Potter is on the telephone with me. Mark is our correspondent down there in Florida.

Mark, how did this come to the attention of the news media? Mark Potter, are you there? Mark may not be available.

These are some pictures. These are not live pictures now. These were pictures that came in just a short time ago...

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is Mark Potter in Miami. Can you hear me?

WOODRUFF: Hi, Mark. Now I can. I was just asking how did this episode come to the attention of the news media?

Mark Potter, are you able to hear me?

POTTER: No Mark is here, I'm hearing the director.

WOODRUFF: OK. In any event, as we were saying...

POTTER: Judy, this is Mark Potter. I'm having a little bit of a technical difficulty. Can you hear me?

WOODRUFF: I can hear you, Mark. Are you able to hear me now?

POTTER: Yes, now I hear you.

This is a situation near Miami's Key Biscayne area. This is a situation that we haven't seen for quite some time. This is a 50-foot coastal freighter, a wooden freighter. The kind we used to see here in the 1980s quite a bit. We haven't seen these in this area for quite some time. In fact, boats like this with banned from the Miami River by the Coast Guard years ago.

But we have now seen a situation here that we used to see more of. This could be potentially a dangerous situation, people in the water like this. We have had other incidents in past decades where this has happened and people have died. And of course, this is why the Coast Guard is so quickly on the scene now.

We have some 200 Haitians leaving this boat. That's an estimated number from the Coast Guard. And as you can see, some have made it to shore. They're up on a bridge at the Rickenbacker (ph) Causeway, the bridge that connects the Miami mainland to Key Biscayne. Traffic is stopped. This is a most unusual situation given the time now.

As I said, we haven't seen something like this in a long time. The flow of migrants from Haiti to the United States and from Cuba to the United States continues. It had dropped off for a while, though, in recent weeks because of foul weather.

But the Coast Guard was telling us just yesterday that they were starting to see the number of migrants coming in coming up a little bit because the weather had settled down, the seas had settled down. And so this may indeed be part of that.

Most of the smuggling that we have seen recently has been on smaller boats, but this is a throwback to the past where we used to quite regularly see big boat loads like this coming to Miami. They had smuggling compartments inside. This was an organized trade between South Florida and Haiti. And again, we're seeing it now and the people are walking along the bridge as you can see here.

The Coast Guard again threw a number of resources to this. The Border Patrol will be brought in. Local authorities are having to deal with this. This is a handful for any law enforcement agency right now to deal with. You even can see here the people climbing aboard a boat that seems to be parked on the bridge. It's a mess right now but authorities seem like they're trying to get it under some semblance of control.

WOODRUFF: Mark, it makes you wonder what -- why these Haitians -- why you would think -- why these people would think, Mark, that they could get away with this. They're coming in in broad daylight, the Coast Guard is there, other law enforcement is there. Why do they think they could successfully land and not be taken away to jail?

POTTER: I don't know. I guess because so many of them have done it in the past. This may -- I can't say for sure but what we used to see was that the people would come out on these boats secreted, they would be hidden. And then they would go up the river and under cover of darkness, then they would come off the ship. Maybe something happened.

I don't want to guess here, though. I can only tell you what we've seen in the past. It does seem unusual to have something like this with this many people coming out, as you said, in broad daylight because if they are picked up, they will be taken to the Decoma (ph) Avenue Detention Facility and will be held and processes will begin to send them back to Haiti. They are not protected by law as are Cuban immigrants. A Cuban immigrant who makes it to shore under the so- called Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy is allowed to stay in the United States. That protection is not extended to anyone else and that would, of course, include Haitians.

So we'll see where this goes. Most likely these people will be detained, they will be taken to the Decoma Avenue Detention Facility out west of Miami in the Everglades. They will be held there for a while, there will be processing and most likely, the will be sent back to Haiti, those who do not slip through. And some may. This is a, as I said before, this is a handful for local police agencies to deal with.

WOODRUFF: Mark, just how dangerous is it? I mean, can you tell how far offshore that boat was in how deep is the water and...

POTTER: Anything like this is inherently dangerous. To answer your second question, they seem to be fairly near shore. And it looks like a lot of them have made it to shore.

We have had situations here where a number of people, particularly Haitians, have died in boats that have collapsed right near shore. We had an awful case in the early 1980s, I remember covering it here, where a boat collapsed near West Palm and a number of people drowned right there on the surf near shore.

Now, as can see here, there and the boat has made its way to a shore -- right next to shoreline -- to the shoreline, so I suspect this is not as dangerous as other situations. But any time you have people in the water, it's very dangerous. And a lot of people from Haiti, particularly the from the inland area, the people who live in villages away from the coast cannot swim. And there have been so many people in the past where people have died out there.

So this is a very dangerous situation. It's why authorities for years, and the diplomats for years have tried to stop this practice, but here we go again.

WOODRUFF: Mark, how -- can you tell how much of a law enforcement presence there is? I mean I'm trying to look in these pictures and I see more immigrants -- more Haitians than I do law enforcement.

POTTER: Right. Well law enforcement is obviously racing to the scene. We understand that the Miami Police are en route and some are there. The Coast Guard is there. I can't see either from the same pictures that you're seeing what that presence is.

But the thing about that bridge is it's a bridge and there's not many places that the people can go in those areas. So the probably will be rounded up, most of them will rounded up fairly quickly. Some may slip through. There used to be schemes here where people would come ashore and it was set up where the taxi cabs would be waiting for them. It was all part of a smuggling scheme. And they would jump in the cabs and be gone before the authorities would get there. That's how organized these things were in the past.

Now, I'm not saying that's what we have here. It's probably not. And if you see this picture here, there are people swimming and that suggests even though they're close to shore, it's relatively deep water, and that's always a dangerous situation. And that's why the Coast Guard is out there with those small boats and those helicopters right now trying to get these people in as you can see. Very dangerous.

WOODRUFF: It certainly was a striking picture just seeing them jumping by twos and threes and fives off of that boat into the water. The first pictures, I gather, that were shot. And now, if that's the boat on the left, it looks -- well, it's hard to tell.

POTTER: I think that's a law enforcement boat. Both of those boats are law enforcement boats. You know, we've had situations here where the people will go to -- start jumping off these boats and they'll all go to one side, either port or starboard, and the boat itself will collapse taking people down with it. That's happened during rescue attempts in the open sea with the Coast Guard trying to get as many people out as they can. And that's the danger when these people start jumping overboard.

And again, there is that threat of many people not being able to swim. And we've lost a lot of people here in south Florida this very way. But as you can see, some have made it to the bridge and they're walking along the bridge with the rush hour traffic.

WOODRUFF: I wonder if some of them are just going to thumb a ride with a sympathetic driver.

Mark, I was struck also by what you said that the Coast Guard was predicting that this would happen when they saw that the weather was going to be clear.

POTTER: Yes, they weren't predicting something like this but they said they were seeing a slight increase in the number of boats coming in from Haiti and Cuba and the Bahamas, too. The Bahamas an important wait point, or stopping off point for smuggling groups.

And they did say that the weather has calmed down and any time that happens, when the seas come down a little bit, people desperate to leave these countries set sail. It's an inherently dangerous process. And some people make it, and unfortunately too many people don't. These people have made it but I don't think they're going to go very far because they're on that bridge. There's not many places to go after that.

WOODRUFF: Mark, what's the distance from Haiti to this Florida shore?

POTTER: I don't know, to be honest with you. I know it's a really long and treacherous journey. If you get caught in a storm, on a rickety boat. These coastal freighters are pretty good. They're made out of wood. They've been using them for decades in Haiti, but it can be a very dangerous trip and through and through dangerous waterways. And if a storm kicks up out there, and we're still in the hurricane season, it can have disastrous consequences.

WOODRUFF: It looks like they're swarming around, at least some of them, around this truck looking for a ride.

Mark, what happens to them exactly if they are caught by law enforcement? You said they're taken to a detention center. Are they pretty quickly processed and sent right back?

POTTER: Yes, they will be processed. They will have an opportunity to be interviewed on the question of asylum. Typically that is not granted very frequently to people from Haiti. They are usually seen as economic refugees and pretty quickly they are sent back. And again, I can't say what will happen in each case here. But if past is prologue, that's likely the case and it probably will happen within a relatively short period of time.

WOODRUFF: And you were saying also, Mark, that the treatment for the law is different for Cuban refugees.

POTTER: Exactly. It's called the -- it's nicknamed the Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy. It goes back to the 1960s when special dispensation was given by Congress to Cuban refugees.

And it basically says now, as it has developed over the years -- and in the Clinton administration, there were some changes. But, basically, what that says is, if a Cuban refugee is intercepted at sea and has a -- quote -- "wet foot," that person is sent back to Cuba. If that person, however, sets foot on land, no matter how he or she gets there, even if it's at the behest of a smuggler, that person is allowed to stay in the United States.

But that is a special deal, if you will, solely for Cubans. And no one else in the world gets that sort of treatment. The Haitians and these Haitians are not protected that way. And, again, if they are rounded up, the chances are good -- and you can see there are now more police cars there. Once they're rounded up, they're likely to go through an entirely different process to the Krome detention facility, hearings, and then out, most likely.

WOODRUFF: If I remember correctly, the Haitian community has lobbied very hard to change that law. They want more lenient treatment for their immigrants, saying that it's unfair for them to be treated that way.

POTTER: Right.

And there has been, on the other hand, great resistance in other quarters in the community to that. The argument there is that they are coming here for an economic reason and the community can't support that many people. Again, that's the argument on the other side that you'll hear. And it, again, extends not just to Haitians, but to anyone else trying to get in.

It's a different rule. And this community has been through this for decades. I'm telling you, Judy, this scene that we're seeing now in the year 2002 is something that I remember so vividly in the late 1970s, early 1980s here, where this was something that happened routinely. It was an organized effort to bring people in like this.

And we would have boats breaking up in the surf along the shorelines, boats coming up the Miami River, people disgorging behind businesses. I remember taking pictures of a boat disgorging its passengers right next to the U.S. Customs building across the river from the INS headquarters one day in broad daylight. And this looks like something we've seen before, unfortunately, in terms of the danger, particularly.

WOODRUFF: No question.

Mark Potter is talking with us, Mark Potter, our Miami correspondent for CNN. He's covered, as he said, similar stories over the years.

And, Mark, I'm going to ask you to stand by.

But right now, as we watch these remarkable pictures of a boat letting a large number of Haitians -- Mark was estimating perhaps 200 Haitians off the boat. They were jumping into the water and swimming and walking ashore. You see them there in the grass. These are some pictures of some of them still in the water, some of them earlier making their way down the highway. This looks like an intercoastal highway there between Miami and what is the Key Biscayne area.

With me now on the telephone from the United States Coast Guard: Anastasia Burns.

Ms. Burns, are you there?


WOODRUFF: What is the Coast Guard doing about this?

BURNS: Right now, our main priority is the safety of life. And we are trying to get as many people as we possibly can. Last year, we rescued about 1,400 Haitians. And we're just trying to do the best we can here.

WOODRUFF: How did this come to your attention?

BURNS: We were notified at about 3:30 that we had a boat out there and one of our boats had come across it. They notified the station, who had gone out to check for danger. Unfortunately, the situation has erupted. And what we are doing is just trying our best to get the rest of the people out of the water.

WOODRUFF: Any idea of how many -- it looks like these are law enforcement police or Coast Guard officials now dealing with at least one of the Haitians. Any idea if some of these people did not make it?

BURNS: I haven't heard anything. But I know there was about 200 people on board a 50-foot wooden vessel. So the situation was already dangerous in the first place. And we are doing our best to get the rest of the people out of the water.

WOODRUFF: We have just been talking to Mark Potter about this. We see one man being taken away in handcuffs right now. What does the law say? These people, they're put in a detention center as quickly as possible. And then what?

BURNS: I'm sorry, ma'am. That's actually an INS issue.

WOODRUFF: So what is the job of the Coast Guard here?

BURNS: The Coast Guard is primarily there to rescue these people and make sure that they are actually safe on the water.

WOODRUFF: I'm sorry. Could you repeat that?

BURNS: Our primary mission is to keep these people safe while they are out on the water. An issue of immigration is INS.

WOODRUFF: All right, we've been talking with Anastasia Burns of the Coast Guard, who said that just a little over an hour ago, the Coast Guard was alerted that this boat was offshore, that it was jampacked with what appeared to be Haitian refugees. And it wasn't long before they started jumping in the water, swimming to shore.

And, as you can see now, law enforcement gathering around some of them. Over 200 of them were on the boat.

Kendall Coffey is also with us now on the phone, attorney, former U.S. attorney in Florida. Mr. Coffey, what happens now to these people?

KENDALL COFFEY, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, it's almost a certainty that they're going to be heading for the Krome Detention Center, where they would be detained and almost assuredly put into removal proceedings, which means deportation back to Haiti.

If there were to be a view that they were intercepted while still on the ocean, then they might actually be returned directly. That apparently isn't the case here. They're being taken ashore. So the next step is going to be detention, removal proceedings. The one key benefit by reaching U.S. soil is that they will have a right to apply for political asylum, if in fact the grounds for asylum can be demonstrated.

WOODRUFF: And what would they have to do in order to win that?

COFFEY: That is a tough one. The basic standard is a persecution or well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Certainly, by and large, Haitian applicants are having a very tough time. As you may know, that's a source of occasional controversy in Miami. But the bottom line is that, unless there is some specific individual grounds to show persecution or well-founded fear of persecution, these attempted entrants into our country will almost assuredly be going back at some point.

WOODRUFF: So you are saying the likelihood is that none of these people will be permitted to stay.

COFFEY: The great likelihood is that they will not be permitted to stay, again, unless they can make an individualized showing of a well-founded fear of persecution, based upon one of the statutory criteria.

WOODRUFF: If the odds are so against them, Kendall Coffey, why do they keep trying, and especially in a situation like this, where it's broad daylight? There are police around.

COFFEY: Judy, the passion of so many people from so many countries to come to this country, the dangers that people absorb coming here sort of defy understanding for so many of us. It is truly a long shot. And yet, throughout the history of this country, the aspiration, the dream of a better life has kept so many people defying the odds, hoping against hope. I think those hopes will come to a crashing end for virtually all these applicants in the coming weeks and months.

WOODRUFF: What's the thinking in the Miami community about these type incidents?

COFFEY: Well, there's always a mixture. There is such a sense of self-conflict that all of us have about immigrants. We're a nation of immigrants. We all come from somebody who braved the perils of foreign lands and foreign seas to get here. And yet, at the same time, there's the inevitable concern that an onslaught of immigration affects the quality of life, adds to the expenses on social infrastructure and so forth.

So I think our community, which, as much as virtually any community in America, is truly a community of immigrants. We still have the same paradox, the same self-conflicts and anxieties that virtually the entire country does.

WOODRUFF: How well-equipped would you say law enforcement is down there to either stop this from happening in the first place or deal with it once it happens?

COFFEY: Florida has 1,000 miles of coastland, Judy.

And to keep boats from coming in -- as you know, many times, it's in the dark of night. This one became spectacular because of the size of the boat and because, as you said, it's broad daylight. But it's virtually an impossible mission to keep people from coming to our shores, especially in Florida, in one form or another.

And 200 applicants, each of whom have a right -- assuming that they follow the asylum process -- to some type of individualized determination -- it doesn't happen in a couple days or in a week -- will add, obviously, to the strains upon the detention system, and, of course, to the processes. It is a never-ending challenge in Florida, as it is in so many of the gateway states and communities in this country.

WOODRUFF: Kendall Coffey is a former U.S. attorney in Florida, joining us -- he's joining us, along with United States Coast Guard official Anastasia Burns, and also our own Mark Potter, our correspondent down there.

We're just watching remarkable pictures of a boat disgorging, I guess was the verb that was used, Haitian refugees, over 200 of them jumping into the water, mostly men, some women, getting to shore in any which way they could, obviously desperate. Or how else could they have braved such a -- what Mark described as a very dangerous journey from Haiti all the way to the shores of Florida?

And then, in many instances, many of them don't know how to swim, so just danger at every turn. And yet they were willing to try. And we've been watching as they try to find a different life for themselves.

Our coverage of this story will continue. We'll take a short break and be back.


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