Haitians at Dives's Door

The eight million Haitians who share the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic have the unwelcome distinction of populating the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is also a country that has endured for two centuries a series of governments inept and oppressive in varying degrees.


Naturally enough, many younger Haitians look for a chance to migrate to South Florida even if this means entering illegally by sailing the open seas in small boats. For years, however, they have been getting a chilly reception from their rich neighbor.

Consider two historical moments nearly a quarter-century apart. In the autumn of 1979, when the Duvalier dictatorship established by the infamous Papa Doc and continued by his son still held power in Haiti, hundreds of Haitians, the so-called “boat people,” tried to reach Florida. They were either interdicted at sea by the Coast Guard or promptly shipped back by the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they landed.

At that time, the Most Rev. Edward A. McCarthy, who was archbishop of Miami, called for a more just and humane treatment of these Haitian refugees. He pointed out that Cuban refugees were automatically granted political asylum—on the grounds that they were fleeing a Communist regime—but Haitians were required to give strict proof that they qualified for asylum. Until they proved their eligibility, these boat people were held in I.N.S. detention centers. In effect, they were imprisoned.

This autumn Haitian refugees have been in the news again, because their miseries at home have not much diminished. Haiti is as poor as ever, and on Sept. 4 the Organization of American States rebuked the regime of Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for its repressive practices.

Last December, the Bush Administration ruled that Haitian refugees are to be detained until their requests for asylum have been evaluated. It was said that this policy, which applies to no other nationality, had to be put in place to prevent an imminent mass exodus from Haiti.

Some recent visitors to the island, who are experienced observers, have detected no signs of any such mass migration. Limited attempts, however, are made. On Oct. 29 a freighter carrying some 200 Haitians ran aground near a Miami beach, and the refugees waded or swam ashore. Almost all of them were soon captured and penned up in detention centers. The next day, the present Archbishop of Miami, the Most Rev. John C. Favalora, echoing his immediate predecessor, Archbishop McCarthy, asked the I.N.S. and the Department of Justice to treat these new refugees as it does those of other countries and to give them “the opportunity to exercise their right to request asylum and have access to legal counsel.”

The administration’s first reactions were discouraging. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Oct. 30 that he was not aware of any plans to review the policy on Haitian immigrants and that President Bush would not interfere with the workings of the I.N.S. All the same, at a press conference on Nov. 7, Mr. Bush himself said: “Haitians and everybody else ought to be treated the same way, and we’re in the process of making sure that happens.”

If the president wants sound guidance on moving that process along, he might consult the testimony that Miami’s Auxiliary Bishop Thomas G. Wenski gave before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration on Oct. 1. The area served by the Archdiocese of Miami includes some 350,000 Haitians, most of whom are Catholics. Bishop Wenski is head of the archdiocese’s Office of Haitian Affairs and also chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.

In his detailed testimony, Bishop Wenski noted courteously but pointedly that the U.S. commitment to protecting the persecuted is often discriminatory—for instance, indulgent toward Cubans and Chinese but harsh toward Haitians, although these are people “who resort to desperate measures to relieve desperate situations.”

In summary, the bishop recommended that the present detention policy be greatly modified and used only in exceptional circumstances. He also argued that refugees should not only be allowed access to legal counsel but should also be given the time, privacy and decent living conditions they will need while working up their case for asylum.

Such changes would effect short-term improvement. In the long term, as Bishop Wenski said in an interview with Catholic News Service last month, the solution for Haiti is to make it a place that is really livable for its citizens. The United States, one might add, has the resources for that enterprise and should have the will. All its own citizens, except for Native Americans, were once aliens themselves or are descendants of aliens.

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