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#1681: Migrants' voyage ends off South Florida shore (fwd)


Published Sunday, January 2, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Migrants' voyage ends off South Florida shore


 As New Year's fireworks spectaculars lit up South Florida's beaches, a
darkened wooden boat treacherously overloaded with 406 Haitian,
Dominican and Chinese migrants chugged toward Key Biscayne, about eight
miles offshore. No radio. No navigational lights. The passengers weary
and dehydrated after traveling six days or more, hundreds without life
jackets, crammed into an island trader 60 feet long. They never made it.

 By Saturday afternoon, they had been caught in the largest migrant boat
 interception in more than a year.  The boat had run aground and
everyone on board had been taken to U.S. Coast Guard cutters. The
cutters roamed out of sight of land, and the migrants awaited
 their likely return to their home countries. None of Saturday's
migrants could be interviewed, and details of the incident were
 still sketchy. But news of their likely repatriation -- via Creole
radio -- sparked a determined but peaceful protest by about 100 Haitian
Americans outside the Miami Beach Coast Guard Station. 
 The demonstrators said they planned to remain outside the Coast Guard
station until the Immigration and Naturalization Service allowed the
immigrants to seek political asylum in the United States. They said the
migrants should be offered the same opportunities to seek political
asylum that other groups, such as Cubans, have been offered. They
chanted and waved Haitian flags and placards that read, ``Equal
Treatment for Haitians.''
 ``Cubans who have been intercepted at sea have been allowed to come
ashore,'' said Marlene Bastien, a member of the Haitian-American
Grassroots Coalition. ``We're going to stay here as long as it takes --
until we hear that the Haitians are brought to land and given the
opportunity to seek political asylum.''

 U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Miami, her son, state Sen. Kendrick Meek,
D-Miami, and Cheryl Little, an immigration attorney and executive
director of the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center, were also on hand
to support the effort.


 ``What we want is equal treatment for Haitians who come to our shores,
risking their lives,'' said Carrie Meek, who promised to call the INS on
behalf of the immigrants. ``That is our fight, and that's always been
our fight. We're going to call anyone who wants to listen to us.''
 The migrants' hopes began to unravel shortly before midnight on New
Year's Eve. The boat, which a Coast Guard official described as
``homemade'' and about 60 feet long and 25 feet wide, appeared on the
radar of the Coast Guard patrol boat Farallon. It was running in the
dark at five to seven knots, Coast Guard officials said.
 The Farallon pursued and quickly discovered that the boat was headed
toward reefs. Its crew tried to warn the boat by radio and then by
loudspeaker, but the warning went unheeded. A language barrier may have
caused confusion. ``They were trying to tell them to turn or you'll hit
the reef,'' said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Andy Blomme. About one hour into
the new year, the overloaded boat ran aground.


 The migrants were still miles from land and in plain sight of the Coast
Guard vessel, but they were determined to push on. They hustled en masse
from one side of the boat to the other to rock it free. ``They moved the
people back and forth and got it under way again,'' Blomme
 said. It was about 1:30 a.m. With the Coast Guard continuing in
pursuit, the boat ran aground again about 4 a.m. -- this time for good.
Coast Guard crews approached in small boats and lofted life jackets on
board. Fearing that any threatening move could provoke the
 passengers to jump into the water, the crews waited until dawn to ask
the migrants to come aboard. ``We got an interpreter and waited for
first light,'' Coast Guard spokesman Scott Carr said. Most refused the
Coast Guard's invitation. ``They were just a mile offshore -- they could
see land,'' Carr said. ``They had been traveling for days. So they
didn't want to give up.'' About 8 a.m., 80 agreed to leave the boat. The
Coast Guard then began to worry that with low tide approaching at 1
p.m., the grounded boat might flip over. By 12:50 p.m., however, all
aboard had agreed to leave the boat. Some were treated
 for minor dehydration, and one pregnant woman, who had fallen during
the voyage, was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital.


 The large number of passengers and the mixture of nationalities have
led some officials to suspect that smugglers had been paid for the trip.
 But prosecuting similar cases has proved difficult. If indeed it was a
smuggling operation, the smugglers likely will blend in with the
passengers, making them difficult to identify, and the migrants will be
unwilling to single out the smugglers for fear of reprisal. ``It was
treacherous from beginning to end,'' Blomme said. ``Any type of rough
 weather would have been a grave danger. Heavy waves would have easily
 capsized it.''