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.
"We have also noticed," said State, "an increase in third country nationals (Pakistanis, Palestinians, etc.) using Haiti as a staging point for attempted migration to the United States. This increases the national security interest in curbing use of this migration route."
A week after the Haitian boat landed at Key Biscayne, an immigration judge ordered one of the migrants released on bond pending the outcome of his asylum claim. The release was stayed as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).
To make its case, INS provided BIA with State's memo. It also submitted memos from the Defense Department and the Coast Guard. Defense said that mass migrations from Haiti "would create a drain on scarce assets that are being used in or supporting operations elsewhere."
The Coast Guard said "because maritime migrants are typically undocumented and carry little or no identification, it is often difficult to ascertain the identity and background of interdicted persons, particularly in large groups, which presents potential threats to officer safety, as well as national security."
On Feb. 12, an immigration judge ruled the Haitian migrant was not entitled to asylum. Nonetheless, on March 13, BIA ruled that pending the migrant's appeal of this ruling he should be released into the U.S. population. The release was stayed as the Department of Homeland Security, which has absorbed INS, appealed to Ashcroft. Under law, the attorney general is final judge of whether aliens should be released or detained pending immigration proceedings.
Ashcroft accepted the arguments of State, Defense, the Coast Guard and Homeland Security.
Calling his reasoning "far-fetched," The Washington Post editorialized: "As for the third-country nations, the difference between a Haitian and a Pakistani entering from Haiti could surely be discovered in a perfunctory border check."
Here is the quintessential liberal vision for securing our border: a "perfunctory border check" of illegals as they arrive surreptitiously by boat and scatter across a beach in Florida.
Excuse me, sir, are you a Pakistani?
I asked Charles Barclay, spokesman for the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, if State stood by its assertion that Pakistanis and Palestinians have been among an increasing number of third country nationals trying to penetrate the U.S. from Haiti. "We stand by the memo," said Barclay.