Jewish Groups Urge Clinton to Proceed Apace with New Haitian Refugee Policy

Jewish groups are pressing the Clinton Administration to proceed speedily with its plan to grant asylum hearings to Haitian refugees.

Sixteen national and local Jewish organizations issued a joint statement last week calling the administration’s recent decision not to repatriate immediately refugees picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard an “encouraging move.”

But Jewish activists say they will be watching closely to insure that refugees receive due process, including legal representation and fair hearings to determine their status.

Sponsors of the May 10 statement include the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Council of Jewish Federations and B’nai B’rith.

Refugees from Haiti have been fleeing to the Florida coast on makeshift sailboats, rafts and dinghies since a military junta overthrew Haiti’s first democratically elected President, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in September 1991.

Of the nearly 45,000 who have been interdicted by American officials since then, fewer than 3,000 received asylum hearings, and only approximately 600 were granted asylum.

Under the newly announced policy, all refugees will be given hearings at sea, or in a still-unnamed third country, to determine their eligibility for asylum. Only those who can prove they are political refugees will be admitted to the United States.

SAFE HAVEN COULD BE THIRD COUNTRY

The joint statement calls on the administration to expand upon this policy and provide a “safe haven,” preferably in a third country, to those refugees who are not political refugees but who have a “credible fear that they will be subjected to political violence in Haiti.”

Mwiza Munthali, information specialist at the watchdog and lobbying group TransAfrica, said this would include most Haitian refugees. “Once they apply (for asylum) they’re already in danger. It’s a political act just to apply,” he said.

Jewish organizations have denounced the forced repatriation of Haitian refugees since the 1991 coup. Many have been involved in lobbying and letter-writing campaigns for the refugees.

In the joint statement, the Jewish groups said Jews have a special interest in the Haitians’ plight: “The Jewish community knows from its own experience the horror of being denied safe haven when lives are at stake.”

It cited the 1939 case in which 936 Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis were denied entry to the U.S. and subsequently returned to Europe, where many were killed in the Holocaust.

In supporting asylum hearings for refugees, the Jewish community has aligned itself with the Congressional Black Caucus, affirming what both black and Jewish leaders say are strong mutual interests.

“What is happening to Haiti can happen to any small country,” said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). “No one remembers this better than the Jewish people.”

Rangel, a leader in the Congressional Black Caucus, said the Jewish community’s continuing involvement in the predicament of Haitian refugees should serve as a model to other groups.

Jewish groups say they are not discouraged by recent delays in implementing the new U.S. policy, which has come under criticism by human rights activists as insufficient. They said President Clinton had acknowledged it would take a few weeks to go into effect.

“People want to know, how is the administration going to make this work? And there aren’t any answers yet,” said Karen Senter, co-director for domestic concerns at NJCRAC.

Since Clinton announced the change in policy on May 8, more than 600 refugees have reportedly been returned to Haiti without an asylum hearing.

Meeting with Aristide on May 13, the board of trustees of AJCongress was reportedly encouraged by the ousted leader to support unilateral military intervention to restore him to power.

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