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U.S. policy on Haitians, Cubans differs

For refugees, it's a matter of what you're running from

From Kevin Drew
CNN Atlanta

A group of Haitians is watched by a Miami police officer Tuesday.
A group of Haitians is watched by a Miami police officer Tuesday.

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Protesters demonstrated in Miami over a U.S. immigration policy that they say treats undocumented Cuban and Haitian refugees differently. CNN's Susan Candiotti reports (October 31)
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(CNN) -- The U.S. government in practice tends to treat undocumented Cuban and Haitian would-be immigrants differently because Cubans are generally considered political refugees and Haitians are viewed primarily as people fleeing economic distress.

In the mid-1990s, the United States adopted a uniform immigration policy for all nationalities. How that policy is applied, however, may still depend on where the hopeful immigrant is coming from, according to attorneys specializing in U.S. immigration law.

While critics complain that Haitians such as the 200 who waded and swam ashore Tuesday after their boat hit ground off the coast of Florida are not treated as well as Cubans, the fact is that no other nationalities get the treatment Cubans do.

"We always give preference to people fleeing communist countries," said Leon Wildes, a longtime immigration attorney based in New York. "Unfortunately, the application of asylum laws isn't equal."

On the other hand, Haitians -- some of whom may fear for their lives because of the surges of political turmoil in their homeland -- are kept in custody while their status is reviewed. Almost all other asylum-seekers are released to relatives or sponsors.

The treatment of Cubans stems from the early 1960s, when it was assumed that Fidel Castro would quickly fall from power. The United States took special administrative measures to welcome any Cuban who could get to this country.

When it became clear that Castro would remain in power indefinitely, Congress, seeking a way to normalize the status of Cubans refugees who had been allowed to stay, passed the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966. It allowed nearly any Cuban to get legal permanent residence after one year in the country.

Before the changes in immigration policy in the mid-1990s, if Cubans were intercepted anywhere on the sea, they would be brought to the United States.

Now, Cubans picked up outside U.S. waters are sent back to Cuba. Only those picked within U.S. territorial waters or make it to American soil without being intercepted are allowed to stay.

Haitians are treated under the rules that apply to all other nationalities: People who arrive in the United States without permission can stay only if they prove a claim to political asylum.

Under U.S. asylum laws, that proof usually requires a would-be immigrant to show he or she has been individually targeted for political persecution at home.

Haitians, however, are generally viewed as economic emigrants rather than political refugees, said one Immigration and Naturalization Service attorney who wished to remain unnamed.

But Wildes said the U.S. policy toward Haitians ignores the political realities in that country, where some people do in fact face political persecution.

"I do believe the U.S. policy to Haitians is prejudicial. We've viewed them as simply being economic migrants and have been afraid of being overrun by Haitian migrants," Wildes said.

The United States also has a policy of detaining Haitian asylum-seekers indefinitely while their applications are reviewed. That policy was put into effect December 14, 2001, 11 days after a boat carrying 167 Haitians was intercepted off the coast of Florida.

Refugee advocates have charged the U.S. policy is discriminatory, because refugees from other nations are released to relatives or sponsors while their asylum claims are evaluated.

The immigration and asylum policies practiced by the United States come after decades of waves by Cubans and Haitians attempting to enter the country.

In 1994, for example, the Coast Guard was involved in its largest peacetime operation since the Vietnam War, responding to two mass emigrations at the same time -- first from Haiti, then from Cuba.

More than 63,000 emigrants were rescued and prevented from illegally entering the U.S. in various Coast Guard operations.

The Dominican Republic has historically been a major source country for undocumented would-be immigrants attempting to enter the United States.

Crossing the Mona Passage to Puerto Rico, thousands of people have taken to sea in a variety of vessels. Most of these would-be immigrants are smuggled by organized gangs.


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