In a sudden change of policy on a sensitive issue, Justice Department officials announced yesterday that they will begin a new process for releasing more than 1,900 Haitian refugees who have been held in detention camps, some for more than a year.
Associate Attorney General Rudolph W. Giuliani said detained Haitians who have attorneys and local sponsors will be freed if they give assurances they will show up for hearings to determine whether they can stay in the United States or must return to Haiti.
Giuliani insisted the decision by Attorney General William French Smith was not influenced by an expected decision this week in a class action discrimination case before U.S. District Court Judge Eugene Spellman in Miami. But Ira Kurzban, the Haitians' attorney in the Spellman case, said, "The administration is not making a humanitarian response, but a political response to pressure it has been getting from Congress and civil rights groups."
Nearly 500 Haitians are in the Krome detention camp near Miami, another 725 are at Fort Allen, Puerto Rico, and hundreds more are scattered in other prisons around the U.S. Giuliani said he couldn't predict how many would be eligible for the new parole, but noted that more than 700 Haitians already have been released because they had small children or medical problems.
The Haitian detention policy was instituted last May as part of the Reagan administration's crackdown on illegal immigration. Until then illegal immigrants had been routinely released pending hearings on their claims of political asylum. Civil rights groups charged the Haitians were being treated unfairly because they were black, and filed suit challenging the legality of the policy.
"We're happy they took this action and believe it shows they have capitulated on the legal fight and are trying to stave off the political heat, Kurzban, the attorney in the case, said."
Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), a leading supporter of the Haitian refugees, said the announcement "is the first bit of positive news we've had in this situation."
Roger Conner, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group urging stronger immigration enforcement, called the decision "the latest example of the collapse of American immigration policy." He said he felt the administration caved in to "good old-fashioned political pressure from the black community."
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials have estimated that 85 percent of Haitians released on parole in the past never showed up for their asylum hearings, Conner said. "I don't blame the agency," he said. "The asylum procedures are so cumbersome, delayed and screwed up . . . I guess they figured continuing detention is unreasonable."
Smith issued a a statement saying that the government will continue its policy of intercepting boats from Haiti and detaining those refugees who make it to shore. The administration has taken the position that Haitians are economic refugees not entitled to asylum from political persecution.
Giuliani noted that the asylum claims and court challenges to the detention policy have stalled INS attempts to hold speedy hearings on the Haitians' right to remain in the United States. Most of the approximately 1,900 Haitians have been detained for more than seven months, he said.
Although Giuliani said bonds might be required in some cases to ensure that the Haitians appear for their court hearings, Kurzban said a bond requirement would make the release program meaningless because the Haitians are too poor to post bond money.
Michael Posner, of the Lawyers' Committee for International Human Rights, representing detained Haitians in New York, said he was "delighted" by the announcement. But he expressed concern that the requirement of a lawyer would mean those refugees detained in remote locations, including Fort Allen, Puerto Rico, might have to stay locked up while others with easier access to attorneys are released.