100 Haitian migrants reach Fla. after at least 3 weeks at sea

Thursday, March 29, 2007

MIAMI -- More than 100 Haitian migrants reached South Florida on Wednesday after spending at least three weeks at sea in a dilapidated sailboat, officials said. One man died in the crossing, and three people were in critical condition from dehydration.

Many of the 101 migrants looked gaunt and exhausted as they were taken into custody by local and state officials. Nearly a dozen minors, including a 10-year-old boy, were among the group. The body of one man washed ashore, and officials said they believed he drowned.

"Our condolences go out to anyone who was on the boat who actually knew the individual," said Zach Mann, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Miami.

The migrants reached land at Hallandale Beach, about 15 miles north of downtown Miami. Haiti is about 700 miles southeast of Miami.

At least 11 people were taken to a hospital. Besides the three in critical condition, four were in serious condition. Two were in good condition, Mann said. He did not know the condition of the other two.

The migrants told officials they had been at sea for about three weeks.

Unlike Cubans, who are generally allowed to stay once they reach U.S. soil, most Haitians who illegally make it to the U.S. are sent back.

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek urged immigration officials not to send the migrants out of Florida as their cases are reviewed.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist promised that at least while the migrants remain in Florida, they will be cared for and treated well.

"As the grandson of an immigrant, I appreciate people's yearning for freedom and a better opportunity for themselves and their family. We have a federal policy that's a little bit different from that," Crist said.

Ludner Ermitus, 26, who said he helped sail the boat, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel: "I know (the U.S.) is a big power. They help most countries in the world. I come to see what they can do for me."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said the agency was investigating whether the migrants were part of a human smuggling operation.

"This is why the U.S. government discourages illegal migration, not only because it's illegal, but more importantly it can be deadly, as we witnessed today," she said.

Last year, Coast Guard agents patrolling the waters of South Carolina, Florida and the Caribbean stopped 6,093 migrants, 769 of them from Haiti.

Marleine Bastien, who heads the not-for-profit Haitian Women of Miami, has long urged the government to allow more Haitians to stay in the U.S. She argues that deporting people who have lived here for years and are sending money to family only makes those in Haiti more desperate. Haiti needs time to recover from hurricanes, flooding and political upheaval, she said.

Bastien wants at least temporary legal status for Haitians -- as was given to illegal immigrants from Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador after natural disasters in 1998 and 2001. That temporary status has been repeatedly renewed since, and some lawmakers are now calling for similar protection for Venezuelans.

She labeled current U.S. policy racist: "Keep the Haitians out at all costs."

"The administration says that if it awards Temporary Protected Status to Haitians, it will open the floodgates. Our argument is that denying TPS is a sure way to get people here as the ones who came today," she said.

Haitians in the U.S. sent about $1.17 billion in remittances to the impoverished island last year, far exceeding foreign aid, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

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