-- Calling the treatment of Haitian refugees unfair and morally indefensible, nine Roman Catholic bishops have appealed to President Bush to release immediately more than 200 Haitians who swarmed ashore in Miami from a rickety boat in October.
"The federal government, through the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, has failed to articulate a compelling moral or security-based rationale for the continued detention of those who seek only freedom for themselves and their children from political persecution and human rights violations in Haiti," the Florida-based bishops said in a statement Wednesday.
For more than a year, under a Bush administration policy, Haitians without documents who make it to U.S. shores have been locked up in federal detention centers until being sent back to their country, the Western Hemisphere's poorest. Previously, most Haitians were released into the community until their asylum applications were heard.
The new American policy is a contrast to the treatment afforded arriving Cubans, who because of a special law are generally allowed to remain in the United States if they make it to dry land.
Scott McClellan, deputy White House spokesman, said that policy toward Haitians has been consistent from the start, and that they are being treated the same as any other group arriving by sea -- except Cubans.
"Our policy is that they will be treated humanely and fairly under the law, and that's what we expect," McClellan said. Cubans are treated differently, he said, "because Cubans would be persecuted if they went back home."
Advocates for the Haitians believe the Bush administration policy is unfair and only getting tougher.
The executive director of one such group said today it was informed recently that it must vacate a booth for attorneys at the INS's Krome detention center. For six years, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which often provides legal counsel to Haitian asylum-seekers, has occupied one of the four attorneys' booths at the detention center, west of Miami. The organization must be out by Friday, said Cheryl Little, the executive director.
"We have provided free legal assistance to thousands of detainees since we opened that office," Little said. "The demand for our services is greater than ever. We've asked them [the INS] to give us other space in Krome where we can meet with our clients on a regular basis. And they have not agreed to do that."
Barbara Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the INS's Miami office, said any comment on the group's ouster would come from the public affairs director of the eastern region, Michael Gilhooly. His office didn't return a phone call.
In their letter, the Catholic leaders, led by Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami, said it was "indefensible and inequitable" to detain Haitians automatically and deny them access to legal representation. Both measures, Little said, substantially reduce the chances that a would-be immigrant will be allowed to remain in the United States.
Last October, in a scene shown on national television, scores of Haitians scampered off a ramshackle wooden boat that had run aground near Miami. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft pledged they would be "treated fairly, appropriately and humanely."
The bishops maintain that hasn't happened. "For more than two months now," they wrote, "these 228 Haitian asylum seekers have suffered the humiliation of continued detention, separated from their awaiting families and community sponsors."