Officials press Bush to change 'unfair' Haitian policy
July 15, 2002
MIAMI -- U.S. Senator Bill Nelson today urged President Bush to end a policy that keeps only Haitian immigrants behind bars during political asylum cases. Nelson's call came after a tour here of a detention center for Haitian women with U.S. immigration policy czar James Ziglar.
Ziglar - in his first visit to see first hand the plight of dozens of Haitian refugees detained since last December - came at Nelson's request, as did a number of other state and local elected officials. Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan came on behalf of Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Today we shined the spotlight on the president's unfair and discriminatory policy to detain Haitian asylum seekers," Nelson said, after the group of political and business leaders had interviewed women detainees inside the Turner Guilford Knight Detention Center. "And because of this spotlight, the administration is feeling the heat for a policy that must be changed."
The administration secretly enacted its detention policy on Haitian refugees last December, after the Coast Guard rescued 167 of them packed onto a 50-foot sailboat off Biscayne National Park. Some 240 Haitians seeking asylum now are held at Krome Detention Center and Turner Guilford Knight. Other nationalities are set free pending their asylum cases.
Immigration and Naturalization Service ( INS ) officials have said the blanket policy toward Haitians is meant to discourage a mass migration at sea. When the policy came to light in March, the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center sued the INS. In May, Nelson asked the INS chief, Ziglar, to inspect conditions of the Haitians for himself, resulting in Monday's visit.
During the one-hour tour, one of the officials invited by Nelson, North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin, threatened to leave the Republican Party if the Bush administration doesn't change its policy. U.S. Senator Bob Graham issued a prepared statement, saying, "I hope that, upon [ Ziglar's ] return to Washington, he will consult with other officials involved in setting this policy and reverse it."
Graham couldn't attend because he was working on legislation to be heard in the Senate this week. Among those present were Nelson; U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek; state Sen. Kendrick Meek; Miami Mayor Manny Diaz; North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin; Marleine Bastien, of the Haitian Women of Miami, Inc.; Peter Roulhac, chairman-elect of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce; Robin Reiter, chair-elect of the Beacon Council; Gilbert Lee Sandler, of the Greater Miami Chamber, vice-chair for immigration; and, staff from both Nelson's and Graham's offices.