KWAME HOLMAN: Every year, thousands of Haitians brave at least 700 miles of open ocean, often in unseaworthy boats, attempting to reach Florida. Yesterday, about 200 Haitians swam the final 500 yards to shore after their dilapidated vessel ran aground near Miami.
About 20 Haitians, including a pregnant woman, were plucked from the water by the U.S. Border Patrol. One immigrant made clear why he endured the eight-day odyssey.
IMMIGRANT (Translated): We come to this country because there is too much poverty in my country. There is nothing to eat.
KWAME HOLMAN: Haiti, a country of eight million, is the hemisphere's poorest. Three out of four people live in abject poverty.
Yesterday's boat trip ended near Virginia Key, just south of Miami. After the Haitians came ashore, a few got into the cars of motorists, but local police rounded up most of the Haitians, who then were held at Miami's Krome Detention Center.
That reignited an old debate over differing treatment for immigrants from Haiti versus those from Cuba. Under U.S. policy, most illegal immigrants are detained on arrival, but a small number can avoid detention as they seek asylum based on the judgment of immigration officials.
For the most part, immigrants from Cuba are not held in custody, and qualify for special provisions in immigration law. And most Cuban immigrants eventually receive asylum in the U.S.; most Haitians don't.
Last night, hundreds protested against that policy at an immigration office in Miami, charging a double standard for Haitians.
WOMAN: The people are hungry. They are dying. The political situation is unstable.
MAN: In 1992, a Haitian boat came in and rescued some Cubans who were drowning. INS came in and took the Cubans and said, "thank you for the Cubans," and took the Haitians back to Haiti.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Florida Governor Jeb Bush faced residents of Miami's "Little Haiti" section, who demanded he get President Bush to alter the Haitian immigrant policy.
GOV. JEB BU.S.H, Florida: My position is, as I stated, if people have a well-founded fear of persecution, they should be allowed into the community, out of Krome, and they should be able to pursue those remedies through administrative courts.
WOMAN: Tell your brother they can be released right now.
GOV. JEB BU.S.H: Okay. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Why you treating us like that, Governor. Why?
GOV. JEB BU.S.H: Haitians should be treated in the same fashion that Jamaicans, people from the Bahamas, people from any country in the world, Colombians. There should be equal treatment, and that's my position.
WOMAN: We're asking you to make a phone call for us and...
GOV. JEB BU.S.H: Okay. I got it.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the White House, Spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked about the Haitian immigrant policy.
REPORTER: Ari, like it or not, this Haitian situation comes at a time when it is right for a lot of people to try and make political points out of it. Can the President and those closest to him maintain a hands-off policy especially when there may be gray areas for asylum?
ARI FLEISCHER: If the question is because it's six days before an election should a president start to interfere with the actual workings of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The answer is no, whether it's one day, six days, or 364 days before an election. The laws of our land are the laws of the land and they should be enforced by the proper authorities.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fleischer said he's unaware of any plans to review the policy regarding Haitian immigrants.
RAY SUAREZ: And Gwen Ifill has more.
GWEN IFILL: U.S. immigration policy has special rules when it comes to Haiti. Mexicans, Cubans, and others, are all treated differently.
This latest turn of events once again raises the question why. Here to explore that are: Dina Paul Parks, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, an advocacy group; and Jan Ting, a law professor at Temple University. He was the assistant commissioner for refugees, asylum and parole at the INS during the first Bush Administration.
Dina Paul Parks, how unusual, we know we saw those pictures and they caught our eye of all of the people on the he boat jumping over board trying to reach shore but how unusual is the episode we saw yesterday?
DINA PAUL PARKS: It's fairly unusual, although also routine in the sense that the numbers that are pretty spectacular in the sense that they were hundreds usually happens maybe once a year, maybe once every couple of years or year and a half.
It is very routine, however. The Coast Guard interdicts those on the seas daily and they have numbers from month to month that vary about how often they run into boats.
And then you'll see a little bit more frequently, perhaps, a handful who make it to the shores, maybe 5, maybe 15 or so. But to have a boat with so many in the range of 200 is not that common.
GWEN IFILL: Whether it's 200 or whether it's a handful what usually happens to Haitians when they reach the shores by these means?
DINA PAUL PARKS: Usually the process tries to repatriate Haitians pretty expeditiously. And it is only if Haitians volunteer they want to apply for asylum that typically at least up until December of last year the process had been they would go through a credible fear threshold interview, which should they pass, at that point within a few days or so they would have been released or I guess the INS term is paroled into the community so see if they could find a lawyer, have time to prepare their cases, et cetera.
GWEN IFILL: Let me interrupt to explain something; the "credible fear threshold" is a fear that something would happen to you when you return?
DINA PAUL PARKS: Yes. The credible fear threshold is the first step basically in the asylum process. It is an initial interview that's done by an asylum claims officer of the INS to basically have someone tell them why if they were returned to their country they would be fearing for their lives in terms of political reasons, affiliation, et cetera.
Generally if you're lucky enough to pass that, it generally means that there is a very good chance at the end of the full process that you would be granted asylum.
GWEN IFILL: Jan Ting, how is this different and why is it different the way other potential refugees are treated?
JAN TING: Well, I think the Haitians are being treated differently since last December because the Bush administration has intelligence which suggests that there is a potential for a mass migration because of situations... conditions in Haiti and it's not in the best interest of the individuals that they make this hundreds of mile journey in these leaky boats.
It's not in the interest of the United States to have these hundreds or thousand of individuals land on our shores burdening our Immigration and Naturalization Service and all of the other law enforcement agencies and therefore, the administration is embarked on a process of trying to figure out what can deter this mass migration to our shores.
And one thing that we can do besides interdiction on the high seas is to make it more difficult for those who do arrive in the United States; and one thing that can be done is to deny parole for these individuals so that the word goes out there is not a possibility of parole.
There is not a possibility that you're going to be let out pending your asylum claim. And it's hoped that this will have a deterrent effect and encourage people not to get into these small boats and risk their lives on this journey to the United States.
GWEN IFILL: When you say that the U.S. government has credible intelligence that there are conditions in Haiti that would lead to a mass exodus, what kind of conditions? Are we talking about political conditions, economic conditions?
JAN TING: Well, all of the above. It almost doesn't matter. I mean the reality is conditions in Haiti potentially will drive significant numbers of individuals out into the high seas looking for a way to get to the United States.
The laws of the United States do not permit their entry into the United States; since 9/11 our law enforcement agencies have been on high alert for national security reasons. This is not the time to have their limited resources diverted into the processing of thousands of new migrants.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Parks, do you see evidence of this threat of mass exodus?
DINA PAUL PARKS: Absolutely not. We have been monitoring the situation in Haiti -- NCHR is primarily a human rights and immigration policy organization.
We have an office in Haiti that was founded in 1992 to do human rights and rule of law work. From our own analysis and the contacts that we have in Haiti, I was in Haiti myself a little over a week ago, there is absolutely no evidence that there is a mass exodus imminent and if you look at the times, if I may just add, if you look at the times where there have been waves upon waves -- thousands and tens of thousands of folks fleeing the conditions that warranted those waves are not present in Haiti at the present time, the current political situation notwithstanding. So we do not believe that is a valid motivation and frankly....
GWEN IFILL: Let me jump in for a moment; why are people coming here then if that is not... why did what happened yesterday happen?
DINA PAUL PARKS: Well, I think that every so off you're going to have folks who are in a situation that perhaps... like I said we haven't spoken with these folks and we don't know that they're applying for asylum; we have not had access to them yet at Krome. The INS is still processing them.
But should they apply for asylum there are folks and there have been folks throughout the years who are fleeing political prosecution, whose homes and houses and places of worship have been burned down from a variety of political factions and groupings.
I think the difference that would certainly would not give way to tens upon thousands taking to the seas, which my understanding is what the Bush administration fears, is that you do not have a centrally organized, highly orchestrated state repression going on.
And that is vastly different. In terms of the poverty, which I think is a very fair issue to bring up, because people always look to a Haitian asylum seeker as economic refugees, but, to be honest, I mean, Haiti has been the poorest country in the western hemisphere for as long as most of us can remember but the waves of refugees fleeing to this country come at very particular political points.
So the economic reasons are clearly not sufficient to drive folks into the sea. And in terms of what's in their best interest savings their lives is in their best interest and if they believe their life is at risk in their homes or in their towns, the fear of being "detained" here in a jail is not going to keep them.
GWEN IFILL: Let me give Mr. Ting a chance to respond. Is this policy, the policy that the administration is pursuing now, is it working?
JAN TING: Well, it's hard to tell. I mean, Dina says that nothing is unusual going on in Haiti but at the same time she acknowledges that this is arrival of 200 Haitians on one boat at one time is highly unusual.
And I think the evidence is kind of supporting the government's case that things are happening in Haiti and that unusual things are happening and a loft people are leaving Haiti.
GWEN IFILL: Why did the law change last December, Mr. Ting? Why is it... to bring people up to date that the Clinton administration came up with the wet foot/dry foot policy for the Cubans, which says if you were on a boat, you went back to the Cuba, but if you were on land, you stayed here in the United States.
Why wouldn't that kind of policy work for Haiti and why was the immigration policy or the refugee policy, in fact, tightened for Haiti last December?
JAN TING: Well, the Cubans have always been a special case and I think there is two reasons for that. First of all our policy towards Cuba is a vestige of the Cold War -- that originally we embarked on a policy of kind of trying to poke Castro in the eye at every opportunity and one way we could do that is to welcome all the refugees from Communist Cuba.
And so that's a policy that started in the 1960s to grant parole initially and then thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 they can adjust status to legal permanent residents after one year. And that policy has kind of been maintained up to the present day in part for I think for political reasons; that Florida is the key swing state as everyone knows and the Cuban American vote in Florida is the swing vote in a swing state.
And so that helps maintain this policy of special treatment and I don't think anyone can deny that it's special treatment for Cubans over everybody else.
The normative policy is for the government to decide based on its detention facilities and the numbers it has to deal with either to detain the individual until the hearing before the immigration judge or release them on bond or on parole as it seems appropriate.
The Haitians are in a kind of a third category now in that the policy of the government is not to grant them bond or parole pending their hearing before an immigration judge. They will get to the judge.
GWEN IFILL: But they could be held in this detention indefinitely, is that correct?
JAN TING: No, they will not be held indefinitely; they will be held until their case is resolved. Either they will not pass through the screening for the credible fear test that has been referred to or they will get to the immigration judge, who will decide either they'll be allowed to stay because they have a valid asylum claim or the immigration judge will order them sent back to Haiti.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Parks, why do you think it's different for Haitians than for Cubans, or for people from other nations, and what do you think should be changed about that if you think that this is a bad policy?
DINA PAUL PARKS: Well, I think Mr. Ting was absolutely correct in saying the Cubans have special treatment; they always have for all of the reasons from which he spoke.
But I think beyond that, if the policy could go back to what it was before December 14 of last year, which is really to treat Haitians as any other similarly situated asylum seeker, I mean, we're talking about a directive that came from Washington, from headquarters to basically -- basically saying you should jail people, you should jail asylum seekers based on their country of origin.
That is not something that should be allowed to happen in the United States; it's not something that anyone should be advocating, much less purposefully supporting.
So I think that with the court cases that we have going forward, hopefully we'll get the policy back to what it was before December 14, which is to basically give everyone the opportunity to put their case before the court and get their fair day in court, because when you're in jail it's very difficult to find a lawyer to find the time to prepare a case as everybody else has.
GWEN IFILL: All right Dina Paul Parks and Jan Ting, thank you for joining us.