Rep. Shirely Chisholm (D-N.Y.) made an emotional plea to a House subcommittee yesterday for equal treatment for the black boat people of Haiti, the oft-forgotten counterpart to the well-publicized influx of Cuban exiles entering the United States.
Speaking for the Congressional Black Caucus, Chisholm charged the Carter administration with lying in its claims that Haitians and Cubans are being treated alike. She demanded that both groups be called "refugees" under the emergency provisions of the 1980 Refugee Act. This would allow federal reimbursement for state and local expenses in caring for the newcomers.
"It is becoming more and more difficult to rationalize support for refugee policies while other social programs are being cut back and our country is pursuing a racist refugee policy," Chisholm said. At the end of her statement, she broke into tears briefly.
State Department officials and David Crosland, acting commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, defended the administration's processing of the Haitians under skeptical questioning by Reps. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee chairman, and Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) the ranking minority member.
Crosland said "race is not a factor, and hasn't been a factor." He said that the processing of Cubans was set up to follow that of the thousands of Haitians who have arrived in Florida over the past several years, though he agreed that there is a public perception that the two groups have been treated differently.
A federal judge in Miami is expected to rule soon on claims that the Haitians have been discriminated against. Rick Swartz, an attorney for the Haitians, said that about 12,000 of the 15,000 Haitians being processed by the INS in Florida have applied for asylum.
David Martin of the State Department said that about 250 Haitians have been granted asylum out of the 7,000 cases that have been processed.
Stephen E. Palmer Jr., deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights, noted that asylum claims must be processed on the narrow standard of whether the individual has a "well-founded fear of persecution" if returned to his homeland.
He said that asylum provisions could become a major loophole in U.S. immigration laws if not carefully applied.
And he concluded that "asylum can never be a major avenue for solving the problem of human rights abuses in the country of origin. If we pretend that it is, I fear we would soon suffer a backlash in this country that might sweep away all possibility of asylum even for people unmistakably in danger of severe persecution."
John A. Bushnell, another State Department official, and Virginia R. Dominguez, an anthropologist from Duke University, suggested that the long-range problem of illegal immigration from the Caribbean will not be solved until the island nations of the region improve their economies. Bushnell said the U.S. government is ready to take part in an international effort to increase economic aid to the area.
The administration has been struggling for weeks to come up with a policy for treating Haitians and Cubans alike without setting a precedent that will attract other poor people from the Caribbean. It is believed to be leaning toward providing some level of benefits while delaying a decision on their legal status. An announcement of the policy is expected today.