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#1859: In Little Haiti, the Elian Fight Sheds a Painful Light (fwd)


In Little Haiti, the Elian Fight Sheds a Painful Light               
Miami Immigrants Say Case Highlights Bias in U.S. Policies

By Sue Anne Pressley Washington Post Staff Writer
 Saturday, January 15, 2000; Page A03 

MIAMI—It was a church-like crowd that moved slowly toward the U.S.
 Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters here on a busy
evening this week. The women were dressed in somber clothing; the men,
in black pants and white Sunday shirts. They held lighted candles aloft,
and  symbolic coffins draped in black--representing the very real deaths
 recently of fellow Haitians trying to reach the United States.  As this
city has been convulsed by the debate surrounding a young Cuban       
boy rescued at sea, the Haitian American community here has been       
working to remind everyone that there is another large group of people
in  greater Miami, other than Cuban Americans, who are dissatisfied with
U.S. immigration policy and law. To these Haitian immigrants and a
growing number of African American sympathizers, the unfair treatment
they say they receive has its roots in a lingering American problem.
"We've never been treated in an appropriate way," said Lavarice Gaudin,
31, a Haitian American businessman who has been an organizer of a series
of protests this week. "It has to do with a lot of things, but I'm sorry
to say  that it is this--it has to do with the color of skin, the
racism. You can tell, whoever is coming here from a white country, they
have no problem. They  get the red carpet."  Miami may be the only city
in the United States that has a Little Haiti and a  Little Havana--both
of them large, thriving and close-knit  communities--and that fact has
been critical in shaping the tensions and the  public discourse here in
recent weeks. Since Thanksgiving, Haitian Americans have watched as the
custody battle  over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez reached an international
boil, drawing the attention of members of Congress and television
cameras from around the world. Elian was found off the south Florida
coast, one of three survivors  of a failed journey from Cuba to America
in which his mother died. When  his father in Cuba and the government of
Fidel Castro demanded his return, and his Miami relatives launched a
fight to keep him here, an outcry in both countries ensued.       
Overshadowed by the Elian story and its almost daily developments has
 been another refugee episode that has broken the hearts of many Haitian
  Americans. On New Year's Day, an overloaded fishing boat with more  
than 400 Haitians aboard was turned away from the south Florida coast,
its passengers transferred to Coast Guard cutters and quickly sent back
to  Haiti--apparently with no questions asked. Several people reportedly
had  died on the miserable journey over here. Only after the refugees
were returned did authorities learn that a pregnant woman taken off the
boat in Miami for medical treatment had been separated from her two
children, ages 8 and 9, who were sent back with another relative to
Haiti. The separation--coming as INS officials touted  their goal of
family reunification in the Elian Gonzalez case--dismayed  Haitian
Americans already upset about policies that, they say, tend to favor   
Cubans over other groups.INS officials decided Thursday, in what was
described by immigrant  advocacy groups as an unusual move, to grant the
two Haitian children a "humanitarian parole" of 90 days and reunite them
with their mother here--at least while her petition for political asylum
is considered. Although Haitian Americans were happy for the family, the
boat episode in general has made their protests all the more determined.
The INS denies that its laws and policies are racist, spokesman Russ
 Bergeron said, and views such allegations as "extreme and unfair."    
What gives Cuban refugees an advantage over others seeking refuge in the
   United States is the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which allows
Cubans to apply for permanent residency after one year--while other
groups may face longer waiting periods. Bergeron points out, however,
that that is not INS policy, but a federal law.  Much criticism of late
has been aimed at the so-called "wet foot/dry foot" immigration policy,
allowing Cubans to remain in the United States if they  manage to reach
land, while Haitians and others usually are returned to their homelands
regardless of whether they touch shore or are captured at  sea. Attorney
General Janet Reno, at her regular Thursday news briefing,explained the
various policies: "There are different situations with respect to      
Cuba and respect to Haiti," she said, "and the nature of the
relationship of  the two governments is different." But immigrant
advocacy groups challenge the U.S. government's contention that the
former dictatorship of Haiti is now a democracy.
 "Political oppression has many faces, one of which is communism," said
 Cheryl Little, a lawyer with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center who
pressed for the Haitian family reunion. "Clearly, there is a long
history of political oppression in Haiti. Unfortunately, when we talked
to INS in Washington when the Haitians were a mile off shore, I was told
there  would be no INS interviews because Haiti has a democracy now. But
the parliament was dissolved last year, there's no rule of law to speak
of, no judiciary to speak of. The Haitian national police are more known
for corruption and violating people's civil rights than protecting law
and order." Miami's Haitian leaders are quick to say that this is not a
case of wanting the rights of Cuban immigrants reduced; rather, they
simply want their own rights increased to the same level. In fact, they
say they have a lot to learn from the Cuban example in this country.  
The Cuban American community, which numbers about 800,000 in south
 Florida, has been here longer, is better organized and more politically
influential, with a large number of elected officials, including the
mayor of  Miami Dade County and two members of Congress from Miami. The
Haitian American community, which began its major influx here about two
decades later, in the late 1970s, has grown to about 250,000 in the
greater Miami area. But its political gains have been slow in coming.  
Bishop Thomas Wenski, the auxiliary bishop of Miami, pastored the
largest Haitian Roman Catholic church in the area for many years and 
keeps close ties with the community he calls "hard-working and upwardly
mobile.People I met in 1980 and '81, when their pants were still wet
because they waded ashore, by the end of the '80s, they were
homeowners," said Wenski, who is on the board of Little's agency. "And
now, at the beginning  of the new millennium, their kids are going off
to universities." Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.), an African American who
has championed the Haitian cause since 1979, has not been reticent about
alleging that Haitians have been discriminated against because of their
race. At a recent Haitian rally, the Rev. James Phillips, president of
People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE), encouraged
political leaders to "fight with the same passion for all refugees and
not just the ones who look like you." But both Meek and Phillips agree
that this turbulent time has been a good learning experience for Haitian
Americans and their supporters--and that the community's days of feeling
ignored may be coming to an end."They are very, very civic-conscious,
and they have a sense of politics," Meek said. "They know if they want
the clout, they will have to get out and vote in great numbers. They are
going to have to be reckoned with."