Little Goes A Long Way

Immigration attorney Cheryl Little spent years banging her head against INS bureaucracy, until a Haitian boat cracked it open

By Friday Little was in a state of controlled agitation bordering on exhaustion. She hadn't slept much or managed to get a square meal into her body. A fish sandwich from Burger King cooled into inedibility on her desk as she made and took an endless stream of calls -- attorneys, advocates, media, people who wanted to help, and those who saw her on TV and wanted to complain about the U.S.'s lax immigration policies. "Senator Kennedy's office, Congressman Nelson's, Alex Penelas's, and Frederica Wilson's," she ticked off the list of important calls she hadn't had time to return: "I was just on the phone with a partner from Holland and Knight and they've got 24 attorneys who have agreed to help with cases."

Because of the election, Democrats like Jeb Bush challenger Bill McBride were using the Haitian crisis to hammer the Bush brothers and rally the black Democratic base to the polls. At a McBride rally at Miami-Dade Community College Saturday afternoon, featuring former President Bill Clinton, several top Democrats took their shots at alleged Bush indifference to the Haitians. State senator and soon-to-be congressman Kendrick Meek contended that McBride is "willing to make the phone call," a reference to earlier in the week, when Meek's mom Carrie confronted Bush at a rally and asked him to call his brother in the White House to free the Haitians. (He declined.) Jeb insisted he opposed the detention policy, although he had kept quiet about it until it was exposed. Still the media and political pressure did appear to make a difference. Friday, the Haitians were allowed access to lawyers, a privilege not accorded to many of their compatriots from the boat last December, according to congressional testimony last month from Haitian advocate Wendy Young. And they will likely be allowed to apply for a release bond.

Little doesn't see this as a weakening in administration policy, however. She says the difference is that the December refugees had fewer legal rights because they didn't make it to land, while the new "dry foot" group is legally eligible for parole by INS, or bond by a judge. "INS could parole them immediately, but they're refusing to do that," she says. "So this is not the INS, out of the goodness of their hearts, changing a policy."

The key to making any headway on the Haitian issue will be garnering the support of a wide coalition in Miami. Encouragingly on Friday, a gathering of African-American, Haitian, Cuban, and Anglo mayors, commissioners, and legislators met in county commission chambers to draft a resolution to President Bush asking that Haitian asylum-seekers not be detained indefinitely. They also talked about organizing a demonstration in Washington. Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, calling the Florida Straits "the largest cemetery in the world, because of policy," warned that advocates of rights for Haitians should not let opponents pit them against the Cuban Adjustment Act because they will lose natural allies. "People are going to try to use this and try to divide and conquer us," he intoned. "We need another adjustment act for Haitians."

As they were meeting, Little, across town, called local Cuban pilot José Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue. She asked him to appear at a press conference Haitian leaders were giving in Little Haiti that afternoon. He agreed. Heading to the press conference, Little talked strategy with Dina Paul Parks, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, based in New York. Parks wanted to organize a national day of protest with Haitians all over the country: "I know the folks in Miami are focused on this election, but we can't lose that momentum. What about trying to mobilize something on the [Washington] mall?" Little wrinkled her nose slightly in disdain for local politics, and nodded assent: "I agree with you. This needs to focus on Washington."

A diminutive Canadian with boundless energy and a dry wit, Little is a curious combination of passionate advocate and cynical pragmatist. In blue jeans and a casual red shirt dressed up with a black jacket, intense brown eyes framed by rectangular glasses, she appeared comfortably outfitted for a long campaign. The INS has been wishing Little would go away for quite some time. She keeps an ironic reminder of her battles in a picture frame behind her desk -- a newspaper quotation of a comment made about her in 1989 by then-INS district director Perry Rivkind: "I think she should get married, get a husband, have some children, cook for him, let him support her and help him to contribute to society." Well, that was then.

For Little, this latest flurry of activity, while important because of the chance to galvanize national support, is just one more skirmish in the continuum of the U.S.'s problematic relationship with Haiti and its people. And with balancing national security and human rights.

In 1996, after a couple of homegrown militia boys led by ex-Army grunt Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma, legislators passed several laws aimed at curtailing immigrant rights, ostensibly to discourage acts of terrorism. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act allowed immigrants to be deported for a wide range of offenses, including past crimes. As a result, the INS more than doubled the number of immigrants held in detention facilities. The agency farms out more than half of these to county jails. The same year, Congress passed a law making it illegal for the federally funded Legal Services Corporation to help illegal aliens.

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