Calling the treatment of Haitian refugees unfair and morally indefensible, nine Roman Catholic bishops have appealed to President Bush to immediately release more than 200 Haitians who swarmed ashore in Miami from a rickety boat last autumn.
"The federal government, through the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, has failed to articulate a compelling moral or security-based rationale for the continued detention of those who seek only freedom for themselves and their children from political persecution and human rights violations in Haiti," the Florida-based bishops said in a statement Wednesday.
For more than a year, Haitians without documents who make it to U.S. shores have been locked up in federal detention centers until being sent back to their country, the Western Hemisphere's poorest. Previously, the bishops said, most Haitians were released into the community until their asylum applications were heard.
The detentions are in contrast to the treatment afforded arriving Cubans. Because of a special act of Congress, they are allowed to remain in the United States if they make it ashore.
"The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not detain anyone any longer than necessary. The length of time a person is detained is determined by the facts in each case," said Jorge Martinez, spokesman for the Justice Department in Washington. "The only individuals that are treated differently are Cubans, because of an act of Congress."
Advocates for the Haitians believe the Bush administration policy is unfair and only getting tougher.
The executive director of one such group said Thursday it was informed recently that it must vacate a booth for attorneys at the INS' Krome detention center. For six years, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which often provides legal counsel to Haitian asylum-seekers, has occupied one of the four attorneys' booths at the detention center west of Miami. The organization must be out by today, said Cheryl Little, the executive director.
"We have provided free legal assistance to thousands of detainees since we opened that office," Little said. "The demand for our services is greater than ever. We've asked them [the INS] to give us other space in Krome where we can meet with our clients on a regular basis. And they have not agreed to do that.
"The timing," she said, "is very suspect."
Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the INS' Miami office, said any comment concerning the group's ouster would have to come from Michael Gilhooly, the public affairs director of the eastern region. His office didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
In their letter, the Catholic leaders, led by Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami, said it was "indefensible and inequitable" to detain Haitians automatically and deny them access to legal representation. Both measures, Little said, substantially reduce the chances that a would-be immigrant will be allowed to remain in the United States.
"Our government is making sure the Haitians are going to be mandatorily detained during their stay in the U.S.," she said. "During their detention, it becomes harder to see a lawyer. And one study has shown that, with a lawyer, an applicant is four to six times more likely to obtain political asylum."
Martinez, the Justice Department spokesman, said the Haitians are being processed according to standard immigration procedures for all arriving illegal immigrants, including Mexicans who cross the border.
He said detainees were likely to be deported to Haiti so as to discourage other Haitians from attempting the dangerous voyage. "This is not a policy based on any specific nationality, but by the clear threat posed by a mass migration," Martinez said.
On Oct. 29, in a scene shown live on national television, scores of Haitians scampered off a ramshackle wooden boat that had run aground near downtown Miami. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft pledged that the newcomers would be "treated fairly, appropriately and humanely."
The bishops say that hasn't happened. "For more than two months now," they wrote, "these 228 Haitian asylum-seekers have suffered the humiliation of continued detention, separated from their awaiting families and community sponsors."
Little said that when her group voiced concerns about whether the Haitians would have adequate legal help, the Krome center responded with the eviction notice, and by reducing the hours that lawyers could meet with detainees.
Noting that this week marks the church's observation of National Migration Week, the bishops called on Bush "to apply the same standard set for all others who seek political asylum to the detained Haitians, and their children as well."
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.