Judge rejects suit on Haitian policy

Sunday, May 19, 2002

MIAMI -- A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit challenging a secret decision by the Bush administration to indefinitely jail Haitians who apply for political asylum after they have been caught trying to enter the United States illegally.

U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard accepted the Justice Department argument that immigration "strikes at the heart of a nation's sovereignty" and deferred to the executive branch.

Immigration attorneys sued over a decision in December to keep Haitian asylum seekers behind bars until their cases are decided in order to discourage a feared mass exodus from the Caribbean nation afflicted with political upheaval and poverty.

That means Haitians are being treated differently than asylum seekers from other countries, who are generally freed until their asylum requests are decided.

Immigration attorneys attacked the policy change as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

The judge, who threw the case out on Friday without a hearing, concluded the courts are not the right place for jailed Haitians to be seeking help.

"Courts generally must defer to the laws established by Congress and administered by the executive branch of government," she wrote.

"It's a deeply disappointing decision," said Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, one of the attorneys supporting the lawsuit. "We can't always count on officials in Washington to do the right thing, and that's why we turn to the courts."

About 250 Haitians have been detained under the new policy, Little said.

A call for comment to the Justice Department was not returned. Department lawyers disclosed the policy change, which immigration lawyers had suspected, only after the lawsuit was filed in March.

The policy was changed after a ship carrying 187 Haitians ran aground off Miami on Dec. 3.

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