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Haitian immigrants deserve far better

Haitian immigrants are not a major part of the scene in San Antonio. This is the territory of Mexican immigrants, people the hill country wealthy employ on their ranches and slyly refer to as “foreign exchange students.” Admittedly, in the mid-1980s, a local newspaper did carry the headline “Haitians spotted on I-95.” Otherwise, the Caribbean refugees have a low profile.

Why then, the anti-Haitian crusade of Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, whose congressional district envelopes this area? Smith’s constituency on this issue is not San Antonio but the Republican House leadership.

Smith has risen under the patronage of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. It is not puzzling that anti-immigrant Smith, chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee, should be so fixated on punishing, by deporting, 40,000 Haitian refugees. What is inconceivable is that Smith consistently refers to the Haitians as “treated better than the refugees from almost any other nation.”

The Miami Herald in response editorialized, “propagandists well know that the more something is repeated, the more people believe it is true.” What’s true is that the U.S. record on the treatment of Haitian refugees, once they began fleeing post-coup slaughter in their own country during the 1980s, is disgraceful. Only 28 out of 25,000 intercepted by the United States on the high seas were allowed into the country, and only 1.8 percent have been granted asylum.

The 40,000 or so Haitian refugees from that period were omitted from 1997 legislation that made permanent residents of 150,000 Nicaraguans and 5,000 Cubans, as Oakland Bishop John S. Cummins, chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, informed the U.S. Senate in April.

In December last year, President Clinton gave the Haitians a 12-month reprieve -- to give Congress time to rectify the omission, and there’s considerable bipartisan support to do so -- unless Smith’s propaganda takes a congressional toll.

Those concerned about the fate of the Haitians involved have only a a matter of days before a decision is made regarding legislation that would protect the Haitian refugee population. The legislation is woven into the Senate version of Treasury-Postal appropriation bills now before the House-Senate conference committee.

What is needed is some rapid mobilization in days ahead to support what Miami-based Steven Forester, coordinator of Haitian Equal Treatment Coalition, calls “a moral issue, not a political issue.”

We agree. Pick up the phone or a pen and put some pressure on your local congressional delegation.

The Haitian refugees and their U.S.-born children deserve far better than they’ve received from this country up to now.

National Catholic Reporter, September 18, 1998