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Haitian Refugees
The Last in Line

by LILIA FERNANDEZ

"I understand that even though my parents were killed, my application for asylum may be denied. Then I would have to go back to Haiti...."

Louciana Miclisse
9-year-old Haitian refugee

"I was so grateful and happy when the U.S. ship saved us from our little boat....Ever since I have been here, I have lived in fear of being sent back to Haiti...."

Nestilia Robergeau
25-year-old Haitian refugee


These statements, made Dec. 17, 1997, to a Senate subcommittee concerning the Haitian Refugee Fairness Act are echoed by hundreds of Haitians who have fled persecution, including rape by the military, to come to the United States. Haitian refugees and asylum seekers currently and historically have felt the brunt of adverse immigration policies. Recent changes in U.S. immigration laws have accentuated the discrimination.

Policy makers have created an intricate web of rules and regulations calculated to always need fine-tuning and explanation by experts, which results in unequal application to different groups of people.

Haitians are and have been turned away from the United States in proportions far outnumbering people from other nations despite the fact they are fleeing conditions that should ensure approval of asylum for them:

Ignoring these facts, the United States frequently labels Haitian refugees as economic entrants, a category of refugees that does not merit asylum under U.S. law. That is compounded by a belief that since reinstatement of Mr. Aristide, conditions in Haiti have improved.

But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has challenged this, telling the United States to carefully assess whether there are really changed conditions and ceased circumstances in Haiti. The commissioner cautions against overlooking the severity of past persecution that leads many Haitian refugees to reject taking chances on being protected by their own government.

Recent reports from Amnesty International USA, which dispute claims of improvement, support the refugees’ fears.

"Conditions in Haiti are still far from stable and have worsened in recent months," the watchdog group reported.


Unequal treatment

Fear of being returned to Haiti, like that expressed by 5-year-old Louciana Miclisse and 25-year-old Nestilia Robergeau, is borne out by U.S. immigration statistics as is the fact that Haitian refugees are much less likely to be granted asylum than are their counterparts from other Central American countries.

For example, Bill Frelick, senior policy analyst for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, compared the U.S. government’s inequitable treatment of Cuban baseball players seeking asylum, and Haitian refugees also seeking asylum in a Jan. 15, 1998, Washington Post editorial. The curve-ball hurlers had a much better chance of getting asylum than those fleeing Haiti’s violent military.

During the 1980s, the number of Cuban boat people allowed into the United States reached tremendous proportions during the crisis of the Mariel Boat Lift. At the same time, Haitian refugees fleeing the abuses of the Duvalier regime in record numbers were relunctantly and belatedly given entrant status.

Haitians have been forced to win asylum one-by-one, often with long waits in detention centers while people from other nations have been given automatic parole.

Such was the case of 11,000 Haitian refugees admitted in the early months of 1992. They were forced to wait in a long line of asylum seekers at free legal clinics, which were ill-prepared to serve and overwhelmed by the numbers of frightened, traumatized refugees who needed compassionate and skilled legal representation in their own language.

The U.S. government has been and is hesitant to grant these refugees asylum. For example, from 1989 to 1996, just 8.4 percent of asylum claims by Haitians were granted. This rate is a fourth lower than for any other country.

Racism is at the heart of this unequal treatment. Racism allows Haitians to remain the neglected stepchildren of U.S. immigration policy, the have-nots in the human dream for peace and well-being.

Christians must speak out. Christians must urge U.S. lawmakers to approve legislation that will protect Haitian refugees and expand the ranks of those granted asylum. And Christians must protest changes in U.S. immigration laws that deny legal processes not only to Haitians but to all refugees seeking safety in the United States.

And Christians must decry racism and must challenge systems and pratices rooted in it.


Lilia Fernandez is executive secretary for refugee ministries for the United Methodist Committee on Relief of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.