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Keeping Out the Riffraff

By Robert W. Gordon

ONCE AGAIN, President Bush has responded swiftly and decisively to an international crisis. To the leaders of an illegitimate coup in Haiti, the heirs of the Duvaliers and the brutal tontons-macoutes, he has quietly acquiesced. But to thousands of fleeing Haitians, Bush has again sent his fighting message: This will not stand.

More than 15,000 Haitians have risked death while unknown numbers have died trying to escape the new junta led by General Raoul Cedras. Unless the Supreme Court or Congress intervenes, and unless the president improbably changes his mind (he's no wimp, after all), most of these refugees--tired, hungry, poor, yearning to be free, etc.--will soon be back in the hands of the Duvalierists. In the last week alone, 3402 have been summarily repatriated.

The administration claims that the Haitians face no danger on returning. Secretary of State James A. Baker III says that there is no evidence that the present government is persecuting repatriated Haitians. When each boat arrives, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) identifies the tiny minority in genuine danger, the "political refugees," and allows them to stay here, at least for the moment.

The rest--the proverbial bad apples who only want a better life and face no special dangers at home--are the mere "economic migrants" who get sent home. The United States can only afford to absorb immigrants who face imminent danger, and most Haitian boat people simply do not.

So the story goes--falsely, cynically, cruelly. The U.S. military transfers the repatriates to the famously brutal Haitian military, which photographs and fingerprints each refugee beneath an Orwellian "Welcome to Haiti" sign. Perhaps the Bush administration believes that the Cedras regime will use the prints and photos to make invitations for a "Welcome to Haiti" party for the repatriates. This belief would explain why the administration slowed the return of refugees--not to assuage human rights concerns, but to accommodate a Cedras regime which needed more time to process bodies.

Scores of refugees, already returned to Haiti once, have made the treacherous escape a second time. Though identified by the INS as "economic migrants," they report having faced imprisonment, torture and death on their repatriation.

Because it has received assurances from the Cedras junta that it would never do such nasty things, however, the administration has effectively called these people liars. In their defense, Amnesty International reports that more than 1500 people have died since the coup in September. Still, all these folks could be lying. And Cedras could be telling the truth. And Lyndon Larouche could be the next president.

If poverty were driving Haitians to flee the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, presumably they would have been escaping for years. In fact, relatively few Haitians fled even during the Duvalier regime--Reagan returned most of them, you can be sure--but thousands are coming now.

The administration says that the Organization of American States embargo has driven Haitians to desperation, but few refugees agree. In any case, they have been coming since September, before it could have had any effect. They have been fleeing ever since the political situation at home became the daily terror the United States has condoned in Haiti.

THE ADMINISTRATION advertises its moral bankruptcy in its current brief before the Supreme Court, which will decide the fate of many of the refugees this week. Bush's Solicitor General, Kenneth Starr, argues in the brief that challenges to repatriation from human rights advocates and religious organizations represent an "unprecedented assault" on executive power. Executive privilege is the last refuge of scoundrels--just ask Richard Nixon or Ollie North. The appeal to legality before morality, however, fits nicely with the refugee/migrant distinction. It clears the conscience--and Guantanamo Bay, where the refugees are waiting--without doing any good for the Haitians who face the Cedras welcoming committee, much less for Haiti itself.

The president also contends that allowing these Haitians to enter the U.S. would open the floodgates for thousands more. It's sort of a Domino Theory for the '90s. But he need not choose between repatriating thousands of Haitians and absorbing thousands more. Using his executive power, the president can declare Haiti a disaster situation and grant Haitians "temporary protected status." A bill in Congress, sponsored by Representative Romano L. Mazzoli of Kentucky, would force the president to grant TPS to all Haitian refugees. They would be allowed to stay in Guantanamo--hardly a reward which would draw others--until Haiti restored democracy and human rights, when they would be returned.

TPS would not send Haitians a message that they can get free passage to America (shudder). It would, however, prevent them from getting shot by marauding soldiers at home. And it would send the leaders of those soldiers the message that America means business about restoring a regime which commands Haitians' overwhelming support.

The Bush administration does not wish to send this message, however. Last Tuesday, the day after repatriation began, it announced that it was "fine-tuning" the embargo against Haiti, saying that it hurt poor Haitians with-out weakening the Cedras regime. (sort of a South Africa excuse for the '90s.)

A few days later, The Washington Post revealed that U.S. business leaders had pressured the administration to relax the sanctions. Most poor Haitians say they will suffer anything to get back their beloved leader, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The New York Times captured the junta's response to the Bush move in a simple headline: "Leaders of Coup Gleeful After U.S. Loosens Its Embargo."

In response to the U.S. message, Cedras promptly promoted several soldiers in a move the Bush administration represented as "disciplining." Not disciplining the army, though, but the people--several of these men were involved in Baby Doc's regime. A triumphant Haitian aristocrat announced in appropriately obscure language: "We are heading in the direction of absorbing this crisis." He is right.

ANYONE STUPID ENOUGH to believe Bush's rhetoric about a New World Order would be surprised at his old world politics. The democratic regime is simply too far left and Haiti too small to elicit an impassioned response from Bush. Though not a communist, Aristide is a left-wing priest, steeped in liberation theology, known and adored in the ghetto that is most of Port-au-Prince. (His beautiful little book is called In the Precincts of the Poor.)

Bush did not support his election, only tepidly aided his tottering government once it was in power and instead of teaching it about human right, harangued it after it had been deposed.

Now the administration thinks it has nothing to gain from restoring Aristide. Unnamed officials smugly told The Washington Post last week: "What incentive do we have to help Haiti? What for? What U.S. interest?" Too bad Cedras is not a communist and Aristide a little more moderate--better yet, an oil mogul of some sort. Then Haiti would get a Grenada or Kuwait invasion.

Instead it gets nothing. On the docks a refugee says. "We voted for a president, and they took him away. Now there is nothing we can do." Nothing but board the boat and meet your Bush-backed leader. Nothing.

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