Adamant and animated, President Bush angrily insisted Wednesday that he will not retreat from his decision to turn back refugees fleeing the economic chaos in Haiti and said the people there are not being "physically oppressed."
In his first public remarks on the developments in the violence-racked Caribbean island nation since the White House announced Sunday that Haitians intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard would be forcibly repatriated, Bush said "the Statue of Liberty still stands" but that he will not open U.S. borders to economic refugees "all over the world."
"We can't do that," the President said.
Bush spoke in response to a question posed to him during a forum at the Mt. Paran Christian School, a fundamentalist institution in this community 15 miles north of Atlanta.
The President, who had been basking in a series of questions about such favored campaign themes as "family values" and support for private and religious schools, was asked how the decision to repatriate the fleeing Haitians jibed with traditional policy of opening America's doors to all ethnic groups.
Bush said the United States will continue to be a haven for those fleeing political oppression. But, he said, "economic refugees will have to come in under the quotas" long established for each nation.
"So there it is," said Bush, perched on a stool in a sweltering school gymnasium as he faced an audience of students, parents and other community members.
"I am convinced the people in Haiti are not being physically oppressed," the President said. "I would not want it on my conscience that anyone fleeing oppression would be victimized on return."
The repatriation policy, announced over the weekend, was intended to stem the overwhelming flow of Haitians seeking to escape in the wake of the turmoil caused by economic sanctions imposed by the Organization of American States under the prodding of the United States.
The sanctions were imposed in an effort to force the junta that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically chosen president of Haiti, to foster his return to power.
In the first repatriation, 38 Haitians were returned to the island aboard U.S. Coast Guard vessels Tuesday rather than being brought to the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo, Cuba. That facility is overflowing with refugees rescued at sea.
Under the new policy, those seeking political asylum are being told to make their request at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince rather than in interviews with U.S. officials at Guantanamo or aboard the rescuing cutters.
Observing that some people regard the new policy as racist, Bush said, "I would vehemently deny (it)--that is not the case."
In Port-au-Prince, U.S. Coast Guard cutters Wednesday returned 587 more Haitian boat people who tried to flee the Caribbean nation. More than half were sent back under Bush's order authorizing direct repatriation.
The Haitian military on Wednesday responded to rising violence by banning civilians from carrying handguns.
The order came after at least 17 politically motivated killings in Port-au-Prince since May 20.
Elsewhere in the capital, soldiers entered a private secondary school to break up an anti-government demonstration, Radio Tropic FM reported. It said several students were beaten in the courtyard of College Philosophes Reunis.