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Cheryl Little was halfway through a strategic meeting with her staff at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) Tuesday afternoon, October 29, when her assistant broke in with the news: A large boatload of Haitians had run aground near Key Biscayne. People were jumping into the water, running down the streets, trying to stop cars on the Rickenbacker Causeway. The phones were ringing off the hook.
In the next two hours, Little worked the lines hard, took calls from the media, and tried like hell to get out to the shut-down causeway. In seventeen years of fighting for the rights of Haitian refugees who wash up regularly on South Florida's shores, FIAC's executive director knew that timing is often the difference between life and death for these people. To be sent back could mean torture or worse at the hands of Haiti's poorly controlled political thugs; or a slower languishing from hunger, disease, random violence, and other "normal" conditions in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.
But unlike many others in years past, this precarious vessel, filled with over 200 desperate souls, seemed to have timed its entrance into Miami -- and onto the national scene -- perfectly. It happened on a slow news afternoon precisely one week before a gubernatorial election considered by many to be a referendum on America's president. Television cameras swooped in to capture the spectacle of sunburned and exhausted refugees, including pregnant women and children, jumping, swimming, and running for their lives. National news programs ran periodic updates on the drama, and talking heads outside Miami boiled it all down to two main themes -- the gaping hole a rickety Haitian boat had just torn in America's post-September 11 border, and the inexplicably harsh policy of detention and nearly certain deportation the Bush administration has imposed on Haitian asylum-seekers. Much more generous interpretations of federal policies are applied to nearly every other group of nationals who can establish a credible claim of political persecution in their home countries. Under the U.S. government's "wet foot/dry foot" policy, people who make it to shore can ask for asylum, whereas those caught at sea are detained and most often deported without a hearing. Most refugees who make it to land and pass a "credible fear" interview are released from detention so they can meet with attorneys and prepare their asylum cases, Little says. Cubans, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the Cold War, are in an even more rarefied category. They are given automatic asylum.
Little spent two days making the rounds of talk shows and news programs, attempting to demystify a tangled history of U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians. Tuesday afternoon her pager blew up with calls, and her cell phone battery died in the middle of a rather important conversation. "And I was on the phone with Wolf Blitzer!" she recalls with a laugh. She was endlessly recycled through the CNN mill of shows, including Connie Chung and Paula Zahn vehicles, and became part of the NBC Nightly News broadcast with Tom Brokaw. Wednesday morning, she was gently grilled by Good Morning America host Charles Gibson, who opened with, "The question of the morning: Why are there different laws for Haitians than other immigrants?" Little contended the reason was pure and simple discrimination. "Our government claims that they're indefinitely detaining the Haitian asylum-seekers in order to save their lives [by discouraging dangerous sea crossings]," she said. "But I really believe this policy is about keeping Haitians out, not about saving their lives."
But working the media is not even half of Little's job. She was also pumping the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Coast Guard for information, trying to find out when, exactly, she could send teams of attorneys in to begin representing the detainees. They need to be informed of their rights, and the attorneys have to petition INS -- which balked at directly paroling detainees despite the fact that most of them made it to dry land -- for bond hearings. During one call she asked one of her paralegals about the condition of the 28 Haitian women being held in a Broward detention facility. "How were their spirits?" she queried, taking notes. "Did they seem exhausted? Confused? What ages? Mostly twenties and early thirties, okay. No English? No French? Okay. One Dominican lady. Okay, well, we've got our work cut out for us." Little explained that most of the women arrived with fathers or brothers, and the men (detained at the Krome facility in south Miami-Dade) were carrying, on tiny scraps of paper, the names and addresses of family members living in Miami -- critical information the attorneys needed to help the women gain release.
Little had also been helping to coordinate the many demonstrations local Haitian community leaders had been staging to pressure the Bush administration during the narrow window before the election. They all know that since the election is over, the attention-deficit media will begin focusing on a crisis somewhere else, and much of the momentum for changing the Haitian policy will be lost. In December 2001 a boat carrying 187 refugees was escorted to Miami by the Coast Guard. Twenty people jumped overboard; two drowned and eighteen made it to shore. The rest (167) were detained for up to ten months, during which advocates discovered the Bush administration's secret policy of indefinitely detaining Haitians to discourage mass migrations. Most were sent back, several dozen just four days before the most recent boat grounding. "We've been trying to get national attention on this for ten months now," Little observes. "We had senators, human rights organizations, even Danny Glover. Despite all that, we weren't making any headway. Now we've got an avalanche."