Officials: No Sign Yet of Mass Exodus to U.S. of Haitian Earthquake Victims

While Homeland Security and other federal agencies are making contingency plans for possible attempts by Haitian earthquake victims to migrate en masse to the United States, U.S. officials say that so far, Coast Guard vessels patrolling the waters near Haiti have not spotted a single boat of refugees attempting to flee the beleaguered country for the American mainland. Officials describe Internet rumors about Federal Emergency Management Agency planning for thousands of Haitian refugees as distortions and conspiracy theories. At least some of the rumors were sparked by a leaked FEMA memo, which Florida state officials told the Orlando Sentinel was revoked shortly after it was first issued.

U.S. officials do acknowledge there are up to 45,000 people in Haiti who have American citizenship or another form of immigration status that allows them to enter the U.S. In the days following the earthquake, officials at the departments of State and Homeland Security discussed whether the Obama administration should order a mandatory evacuation, presumably by U.S. military forces now flooding into Haiti, of all U.S. citizens on the ground there, according to an administration official who asked for anonymity when discussing internal government deliberations. But to date, no such evacuation order has been issued, and at the moment such a move appears unlikely.

At one point last week, Richard Crotty, mayor of Orange County, Fla, which includes the city of Orlando, told Declassified, a local Red Cross official talked to him about the possibility of 45,000 people being repatriated from Haiti to the U.S.; Crotty and other local officials said there was a suggestion that 4,000 of these refugees might be headed for the Orlando area. In reality, Crotty and other Orange County officials said, so far fewer than 1,300 Haitian-Americans have flown into an Orlando area airport from the earthquake zone, and many of those have dispersed via connecting flights or ground transportation to onward destinations. The interplay between the local Red Cross official and Orange County officials led to a story on a local TV Web site which implied that central Florida might soon be flooded with Haitian refugees. But both local government and Red Cross officials now say that the story was inaccurate and that statements by the local Red Cross official may have contributed to the misunderstanding.

The only concrete steps federal authorities have taken so far to prepare for a possible wave of undocumented earthquake refugees is that the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Homeland Security division responsible for arresting and incarcerating illegal immigrants, is moving a group of detainees out of the Krome Processing Center, a holding facility for illegal immigrants in the Miami area. A Miami Herald story said that "hundreds" of the center's detainees might be moved, although a federal official told NEWSWEEK that the current plan was to relocate about 200 of the center's residents. An administration official maintained: "This action only amounts to a couple hundred beds and is merely an act of prudent contingency planning as there is absolutely no sign of a pending mass migration."

The Homeland Security Department did announce that certain Haitian orphans and Haitian citizens who were inside the U.S. prior to the earthquake would be allowed temporary residence in the U.S. for 18 months. A U.S. official said that the State and Homeland Security departments were also allowing a limited number of very badly injured Haitian citizens into the U.S. for medical treatment. But the official declined to say how many Haitians have so far been allowed into the U.S. on these grounds, or what medical or other criteria the government was using for deciding who can and cannot be allowed into the U.S. for such emergency care.

A Homeland Security official said that while the government was considering options in the event of a mass migration of earthquake, the government is not yet ready to discuss details. "There are a number of options on the table, but right now there are no signs of a migration beginning, and our focus is to discourage people from attempts to migrate, which are very dangerous," the official said. Among steps some officials say the government might be considering to handle such a boatlift, said another official who has been briefed on some of the discussions, is housing some seaborne refugees at parts of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo, Cuba, which are not involved in the detention of terrorism suspects. But other plans could include efforts by the U.S. to build what amounts to large refugee camps in parts of Haiti which were not badly damaged by the earthquake.