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Haitian refugees deserve a measure of fairness

Tens of thousands of Haitian refugees are only days from likely deportation as they face yet another U.S. immigration policy injustice. Initially, they were ignored by a 1997 law that gave a half-million Central American refugees a chance for permanent residency. Then, after heavy lobbying, Congress acceded, passing the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act of October 1998.

However, while the second bill followed the first by nearly a year, both bills contained the same application deadline: March 31, 2000. Factoring in bureaucratic delays, Haitians ended up with only nine months to apply for residency, while Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans got 21 months.

There have been other roadblocks. Most of these refugees scrape together modest incomes. Haitians and Nicaraguans, meanwhile, have had to pay more than Salvadorans and Guatemalans to apply for residency. Haitians and Nicaraguans must pay a fee for each family member while Salvadorans and Guatemalans get a family rate. The bill for a Haitian or Nicaraguan family of seven can run more than $2,000, not including the mandatory medical exam, lawyers’ fees and other costs. Salvadorans and Guatemalans -- thanks to a legal technicality -- pay a maximum of $480 per family.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, only a few more than 24,000 Haitians have applied -- or about half the 50,000 who are estimated to be eligible. About 43,000 Nicaraguans have applied for the Relief Act, or about 55 percent of the 85,000 people advocates say could qualify.

Further, INS has used a technicality to block the eligibility of about 10,000 Haitians who arrived between 1982 and 1994, because they came by air rather than sea. These so-called “airport arrivals,” knowing the U.S. Coast Guard was stopping refugee boats and returning the passengers directly into the hands of the military thugs they were fleeing, used falsified documents to get past airport authorities. Advocates say the law was never intended to exclude the airport arrivals.

Finally, even though the deadline looms for both the Nicaraguan or Haitian refugee relief programs, the INS has yet to issue its final regulations for either one. Until that step is taken, advocates say, many applicants will stay away because they don’t know the standard by which they will be judged.

Those 20,000 to 25,000 Haitians have an estimated 6,000 or more U.S.-born children. Those parents would face a heart-rending choice: Leave their kids in this country so that they’ll have a shot at true opportunity or take them back to the hemisphere’s poorest, most desperate nation.

Bills have been introduced in Congress to extend application deadlines. The Senate proposal, sponsored jointly by Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Connie Mack, R-Fla., cites the fact that the INS has yet to issue its final regulations for either program. Their bill would extend the deadline one year from the time INS issues final rules.

U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., introduced a bill in the House that would push the deadline back even further than the Senate proposal. It would extend the application deadline 18 months, to Oct. 1, 2001, or 12 months from the time INS issues its final regulations, whichever is later.

These bills are aimed at establishing a sense of fairness -- something long denied many of the Caribbean and Central American refugees to our country. This legislation needs our active support.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000