It was a church-like crowd that moved slowly toward the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters here on a busy evening this week. The women were dressed in somber clothing; the men, in black pants and white Sunday shirts. They held lighted candles aloft, and symbolic coffins draped in black--representing the very real deaths recently of fellow Haitians trying to reach the United States.

As this city has been convulsed by the debate surrounding a young Cuban boy rescued at sea, the Haitian American community here has been working to remind everyone that there is another large group of people in greater Miami, other than Cuban Americans, who are dissatisfied with U.S. immigration policy and law. To these Haitian immigrants and a growing number of African American sympathizers, the unfair treatment they say they receive has its roots in a lingering American problem.

"We've never been treated in an appropriate way," said Lavarice Gaudin, 31, a Haitian American businessman who has been an organizer of a series of protests this week. "It has to do with a lot of things, but I'm sorry to say that it is this--it has to do with the color of skin, the racism. You can tell, whoever is coming here from a white country, they have no problem. They get the red carpet."

Miami may be the only city in the United States that has a Little Haiti and a Little Havana--both of them large, thriving and close-knit communities--and that fact has been critical in shaping the tensions and the public discourse here in recent weeks.

Since Thanksgiving, Haitian Americans have watched as the custody battle over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez reached an international boil, drawing the attention of members of Congress and television cameras from around the world. Elian was found off the south Florida coast, one of three survivors of a failed journey from Cuba to America in which his mother died. When his father in Cuba and the government of Fidel Castro demanded his return, and his Miami relatives launched a fight to keep him here, an outcry in both countries ensued.

Overshadowed by the Elian story and its almost daily developments has been another refugee episode that has broken the hearts of many Haitian Americans. On New Year's Day, an overloaded fishing boat with more than 400 Haitians aboard was turned away from the south Florida coast, its passengers transferred to Coast Guard cutters and quickly sent back to Haiti--apparently with no questions asked. Several people reportedly had died on the miserable journey over here.

Only after the refugees were returned did authorities learn that a pregnant woman taken off the boat in Miami for medical treatment had been separated from her two children, ages 8 and 9, who were sent back with another relative to Haiti. The separation--coming as INS officials touted their goal of family reunification in the Elian Gonzalez case--dismayed Haitian Americans already upset about policies that, they say, tend to favor Cubans over other groups.

INS officials decided Thursday, in what was described by immigrant advocacy groups as an unusual move, to grant the two Haitian children a "humanitarian parole" of 90 days and reunite them with their mother here--at least while her petition for political asylum is considered. Although Haitian Americans were happy for the family, the boat episode in general has made their protests all the more determined.

The INS denies that its laws and policies are racist, spokesman Russ Bergeron said, and views such allegations as "extreme and unfair."

What gives Cuban refugees an advantage over others seeking refuge in the United States is the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which allows Cubans to apply for permanent residency after one year--while other groups may face longer waiting periods. Bergeron points out, however, that that is not INS policy, but a federal law.

Much criticism of late has been aimed at the so-called "wet foot/dry foot" immigration policy, allowing Cubans to remain in the United States if they manage to reach land, while Haitians and others usually are returned to their homelands regardless of whether they touch shore or are captured at sea. Attorney General Janet Reno, at her regular Thursday news briefing, explained the various policies: "There are different situations with respect to Cuba and respect to Haiti," she said, "and the nature of the relationship of the two governments is different."

But immigrant advocacy groups challenge the U.S. government's contention that the former dictatorship of Haiti is now a democracy.

"Political oppression has many faces, one of which is communism," said Cheryl Little, a lawyer with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center who pressed for the Haitian family reunion. "Clearly, there is a long history of political oppression in Haiti. Unfortunately, when we talked to INS in Washington when the Haitians were a mile off shore, I was told there would be no INS interviews because Haiti has a democracy now. But the parliament was dissolved last year, there's no rule of law to speak of, no judiciary to speak of. The Haitian national police are more known for corruption and violating people's civil rights than protecting law and order."

Miami's Haitian leaders are quick to say that this is not a case of wanting the rights of Cuban immigrants reduced; rather, they simply want their own rights increased to the same level. In fact, they say they have a lot to learn from the Cuban example in this country.

The Cuban American community, which numbers about 800,000 in south Florida, has been here longer, is better organized and more politically influential, with a large number of elected officials, including the mayor of Miami Dade County and two members of Congress from Miami. The Haitian American community, which began its major influx here about two decades later, in the late 1970s, has grown to about 250,000 in the greater Miami area. But its political gains have been slow in coming.

Bishop Thomas Wenski, the auxiliary bishop of Miami, pastored the largest Haitian Roman Catholic church in the area for many years and keeps close ties with the community he calls "hard-working and upwardly mobile.

"People I met in 1980 and '81, when their pants were still wet because they waded ashore, by the end of the '80s, they were homeowners," said Wenski, who is on the board of Little's agency. "And now, at the beginning of the new millennium, their kids are going off to universities."

Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.), an African American who has championed the Haitian cause since 1979, has not been reticent about alleging that Haitians have been discriminated against because of their race. At a recent Haitian rally, the Rev. James Phillips, president of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE), encouraged political leaders to "fight with the same passion for all refugees and not just the ones who look like you."

But both Meek and Phillips agree that this turbulent time has been a good learning experience for Haitian Americans and their supporters--and that the community's days of feeling ignored may be coming to an end.

"They are very, very civic-conscious, and they have a sense of politics," Meek said. "They know if they want the clout, they will have to get out and vote in great numbers. They are going to have to be reckoned with."

CAPTION: After protests against the treatment of Haitian immigrants, such as that staged by young Haitian Americans in Miami, two children have been allowed to join their mother in Florida.

CAPTION: Haitian Americans rallied in Miami on Jan. 3 against U.S. immigration policy after hundreds of Haitians were taken from a ship that ran aground off the Miami coast and sent back to Haiti.