Politician urges Gov. Bush to ask brother to free Haitians

Thursday, October 31, 2002

MIAMI -- A congresswoman pressed Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday to ask his brother, the president, to order the release of 200 Haitian immigrants detained in Florida after they jumped off a freighter and waded ashore.

The Republican governor was confronted during a campaign stop by Rep Carrie Meek, D-Fla., who said the Haitians should be treated like Cuban immigrants.

"All you have to do is call -- the wet foot-dry foot policy would take effect," Meek said.

Normally, Cuban immigrants are allowed to remain in the United States if they reach land, while those intercepted at sea are returned.

The governor said he agrees Haitian immigrants should be released until their asylum request is heard, like immigrants from other countries.

"Haitians should be treated in the same fashion that Jamaicans, people from the Bahamas, people from any country in the world," Bush said.

A day earlier, the governor said he had called White House officials regarding the immigrants, but he did not elaborate Wednesday or say whether he had spoken with his brother.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Haitians were being treated fairly and humanely and that the president would not intervene.

"The Immigration and Naturalization Service will apply the law and make the proper judgments," Fleischer said.

The 50-foot wooden freighter carrying 211 Haitians and three Dominicans ran aground Tuesday on a stretch of beach near a road south of downtown Miami. Six Haitian nationals were charged with illegal smuggling in the case.

The Haitian immigrants included 150 men, 35 women and 26 juveniles, INS spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said. One of the minors was hospitalized for dehydration.

Gonzalez declined to say whether any of the immigrants had asked for asylum.

The immigrants' detention sparked protests by Haitian-Americans who said U.S. laws discriminate by favoring other immigrants -- particularly Cubans.

Jean Robert Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, said the detention poses a leadership test for Gov. Bush.

"If Bush could champion the issue, he could shift the balance in the election," Lafortune said. "The time for lip service is over."

Bill McBride, the Democratic nominee for governor, released a letter to President Bush asking him to order the Haitians' release. He also took to Haitian-American airwaves.

"We should not have one set of rules apply to one set of people and one set of rules to apply to Haitians," McBride said during a call Wednesday to WSRF-AM in Fort Lauderdale.

Thousands of Haitians each year risk dangerous voyages aboard rickety, crowded boats to flee their impoverished island. Unlike Cubans, Haitian immigrants usually are denied asylum and sent back.

About 4,000 immigrants have been intercepted at sea this year, including about 1,500 Haitians, the Coast Guard said.

The Bush administration quietly changed its detention policy on Haitian refugees in December to discourage a feared mass exodus. Before the change, Haitian immigrants applying for asylum were released into the community while their petitions were processed. Since the change, Haitians have been kept in immigration custody.

Immigration attorneys sued the government in March, saying the new policy of detention was biased.

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