Rejecting The Refugees

Is Albert Auguste a freedom lover or a fortune seeker? Last week the U.S. Coast Guard returned the 31-year-old to Haiti after plucking him and 141 others from a homemade wooden boat bobbing off the coast of Florida. It was his second repatriation. The first time, Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere, was ruled by dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. Today Haiti is under the control of a violent group of military coup makers against whom the U.S. government has organized a trade embargo. To the Bush administration, however, Auguste is an economic refugee, lured northward by American opportunity; he must go home. To supporters of the boat people, the roughly 3,000 Haitians who have fled since the Sept. 29 coup are escaping military violence and deserve refuge, if not fullfledged political asylum.

Just after the Coast Guard began repatriations last week, a federal court in Miami ordered a five-day halt to hear legal arguments. But Auguste and 595 other Haitians had already been brought into Port-au-Prince Harbor, and the administration said it would complete the repatriations as soon as the court order expires. The administration argued that its policy of "interdiction " of Haitians, created in 1981 after boatloads of Haitians died trying to reach the United States, is designed to discourage people from attempting the dangerous journey. No sooner had the court suspended repatriations than about 135 Haitians drowned or were missing off the coast of Cuba.

Whatever its intent, the U.S. policy created an apparent ideological and racial double standard: while black Haitians await repatriation on the decks of cutters offshore or at the U.S. Navy station in Guantanamo, Cuba, the Coast Guard has rescued more than 2,000 boat people this year fleeing Fidel Castro's communist island to Florida, where the vast majority receive some form of legal residence. Also embarrassing for Washington, the administration's actions were at odds with its recent denunciation of Britain's decision to send Vietnamese boat people back from Hong Kong. Critics advancing such arguments overlook the fact that about 20 percent of Cuban boat people are themselves black, and that greater U.S. involvement in the past affairs of Vietnam and Cuba arguably creates additional responsibility for their people. But given that even Salvadorans recently received temporary protective status they were long denied, it was hard to dismiss suspicions that U.S. law was being especially strictly applied to Afro-Caribbean Haiti. "If they were from Europe, this would not even be an issue," said Rep. Charles Rangel.

American policy toward Haitian boat people has been debated ever since Jimmy Carter, giving almost the same arguments George Bush used last week, ordered 97 Haitians repatriated from Guantanamo in 1977. Ironically, both the administration and its critics agree on one thing: the validity of U.S. and international refugee law, which draws a bright line between those who have "a well-founded fear of persecution," and thus qualify for political asylum--and everyone else. But even in theory, that apparently logical distinction is not necessarily so clear-cut. Exactly which part of Albert Auguste's predicament is political, and which part economic? He comes from a place well worth fleeing in both respects; conversely, the attractions of the United States are both freedom and work. In any case, why the absolute preference for political victims over all other kinds? During the 1980s, was it freer and safer to be a peasant living in El Salvador or a doctor living in communist Hungary? Not an easy question. But for years professionals from Eastern Europe got relatively prompt asylum in America, while others got stiffed.

The awkward fact with which U.S. policy wrestles is that people flee the world's Haitis for a combination of motives. All are deserving of some compassion, but how much? Even Auguste saw some ambiguity in his own situation: "It's very difficult to say if I left for political reasons," he said. "We are in misery." That fact alone seemed beyond dispute.