President Clinton's chief adviser on Haiti said Sunday that there is "some truth" to critics' charges that the United States has a tougher immigration policy for Haitians because they are black, but he defended Clinton's overall efforts as humane.
"I'm not going to argue that difference, because I think that there is some truth to that statement," William H. Gray III said when confronted with the allegation on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley."
Gray's comments came as Panamanian President-elect Ernesto Perez Balladares said he is prepared to accept a group of Haitian refugees at a U.S. military base in Panama, the Reuters news service reported.
Perez, speaking to reporters at Panama's Tocumen International Airport, did not say when the Haitians could begin arriving in Panama. But he said they would be fewer than the 10,000 requested by the United States and that they could stay for no more than six months. On Sept. 1, Perez is scheduled to take over from President Guillermo Endara, who agreed last week to accept the refugees and then shocked the Clinton Administration by changing his mind.
Gray's comments, which he tempered somewhat, marked the first time that a senior Administration official has admitted that U.S. immigration policies toward Haitian refugees are at least partly based on race.
Gray, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who now heads the United Negro College Fund, was once the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, one of the most outspoken critics of U.S. policy toward Haiti during both the George Bush and the Clinton administrations.
It was largely because of complaints from the Black Caucus that Clinton began easing the Bush-era policies on Haiti that he had been following for the first 1 1/2 years of his term. Caucus complaints also influenced Clinton's decision to name Gray to head the effort to resolve the situation in Haiti.
Gray, however, carefully asserted Sunday that there has been a distinction in the way different immigrant groups have been treated throughout U.S. history, and he defended the Administration's policy as one that has expanded "haven" protection for Haitians.
"The announcement made this week actually gives more political asylum to Haitians than ever before, because we've gotten six other countries involved (as potential hosts for haven facilities)," Gray said. "And we're expanding it."
Haitians continued to stay home Sunday for a second day in a row instead of setting out to be picked up by U.S. patrol ships--bolstering earlier suggestions that the Administration's new restrictions on asylum-seekers may be having an impact.
Officials reported that 398 Haitians were intercepted Sunday, reinforcing a drop-off to 242 people Saturday. The figures had been far heavier since mid-June, when the United States expanded its refugee-processing facilities. On Friday, the total was 1,859.
Although the exodus was dampened somewhat by bad weather in the region over the weekend, officials said there were increasing indications that radio broadcasts that the United States has been beaming to Haiti describing the new restrictions may be beginning to work.
Authorities cautioned that while Sunday's figures seemed "encouraging," it is too soon to conclude definitively that the decline will hold. Reports from Haiti say that many Haitians are continuing to build escape boats and may use them soon.
Clinton eased immigration policies June 16, allowing Haitians to seek asylum on ships in the Caribbean and off the coast of Jamaica that are equipped to process their applications, but the shift spawned an exodus of refugees.
In an effort to slow the exodus, the White House announced last week that Haitians intercepted at sea would no longer be allowed to immigrate to America and would instead be transported to "havens" outside the United States.
Under the new policy, only those Haitians who apply for asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince and two provincial locations will be allowed into the United States.
Meanwhile, a Navy task force carrying about 2,000 Marines continued to steam toward Haiti amid increasing warnings by top officials that the United States might invade the island nation if the military junta there does not step down. The ships are due to arrive tonight or Tuesday.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in Naples, Italy, for the summit of the world's seven richest industrialized democracies, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that an invasion "is one of the things on the table" in case Haiti's military rulers do not step down.
Gray's allusion to racial factors in U.S. immigration policies was reiterated by Rep. Carrie Meek (D-Fla.), a current member of the Black Caucus. Meek said on "This Week With David Brinkley" that "there is a double standard" in U.S. immigration policies.
Other top Administration officials had little to say on the subject. Christopher sidestepped a question on the racial issue entirely, saying Americans "need to remember where the real problem is"--with the Haitian military.