Because it detected an increase in third country nationals, including Pakistanis and Palestinians, attempting to sneak into the United States from Haiti, and because it feared that lax immigration enforcement would lead to a new boatlift from that country, the State Department recently urged the White House to adopt a policy of detaining illegal aliens arriving by boat from Haiti until they could be deported or granted asylum.
When Attorney General John Ashcroft released a legal opinion last week accepting State's advice, he was castigated by a lead editorial in The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, a big story fell through the cracks: Secretary of State Colin Powell's department -- frequently depicted as the most dovish in the administration -- is confirming that Middle Eastern nationals have been trying to penetrate the U.S. from Haiti. In State's view this was one of the factors justifying detention of persons arriving illegally from that island.
The issue came to a head after Oct. 29, 2002, when a boat carrying 216 aliens later determined to be Haitians and Dominicans, ran aground at Key Biscayne, Fla.
Then-State Department Executive Secretary Maura Harty sent a "Sensitive But Unclassified" memo to the National Security Council. "The migrants should be detained unless and until they demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution," said the memo. "Those who cannot do so should continue to be held, absent a compelling humanitarian reason for release, until they can be expeditiously repatriated."
State made two arguments: 1) Haitian boatlifts spike when the U.S. waffles on enforcing immigration law against Haitians, and 2) national security could be threatened by Middle Eastern nationals reaching the U.S. through Haiti.
The memo blamed Clinton administration indecisiveness for the last spike in Haitian boat people. Between 1993 and 1994, said State, Haitian migrants intercepted by the Coast Guard jumped from 2,404 to 25,069. "Anticipation of changes in immigration policy with the new Clinton Administration in 1993 caused tens of thousands of Haitians to take to boats after the new president was sworn in, and policy remained undefined for months," said State.
But State's more ominous point came in the memo's last two paragraphs.
"Haitian migration is changing," said State. "It has become more sophisticated and now takes advantage of routes via the Bahamas and uses professional smugglers. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of un-seaworthy vessels ready to take off at a moment's notice.