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Haitians Seek Immigration Equality

January 13, 2000

MIAMI (AP) _ Haitian activists staged a mock funeral and protest march Wednesday to draw attention to disparities in the treatment of Haitian and Cuban immigrants who seek asylum in the United States.

The protesters pointed to the international custody battle over Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old Cuban boy, and contrasted that with the plight of a pregnant woman whose children were returned to Haiti this month while she remained in the United States.

``We are asking for fairness, equality and due process,″ said Aude Sicard, an activist with the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. ``Haitian children are children too.″

Under U.S. immigration policy, Haitians and others who arrive illegally are sent back to their country. The Cuban Readjustment Act of 1966 grants any Cuban who reaches American soil the right to stay.

But Haitians claim they are routinely repatriated _ sent back to Haiti _ without being allowed to request a hearing to determine whether they have a ``credible fear″ of persecution in their homeland.

They claim that the repatriation of 407 Haitian migrants attempting to enter the United States illegally on New Year’s Day was unfair _ especially in light of the fight to keep Elian after he survived an illegal attempt to reach Florida.

Passengers on the boat from Haiti said as many as six people died during the journey, and their bodies were thrown overboard.

In honor of those who died, the activists staged a mock funeral that was attended by about 300 Haitians and black Americans in Miami’s Little Haiti section. The ceremony was followed by a candlelight march. Protesters carried three coffins draped in black, and several marchers wearing red and blue armbands.

Encel Alcime, a 75-year-old retired Miami-Dade County water department worker, said his fellow Haitian immigrants are treated differently than Cubans because they are black.

``Haitians are taken from the water and sent back right away, which means that they don’t need us here,″ Alcime said.

In the New Year’s trip, four of the 411 passengers were brought to shore for medical reasons, including Yvena Rhinvil, who is four months pregnant.

But her children, ages 8 and 9, were among those repatriated to Haiti, where they are living with an aunt.

U.S. officials said they weren’t told Rhinvil’s children were with her. ``If we would have known that she had children on board, we would have brought the children with her,″ said Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz.

Activists didn’t believe it.

``That’s a big lie,″ Sicard said. ``All during the trip down back to Haiti, they thought that their mother had died. This is inhuman.″

Rhinvil, 33, has passed the ``credible fear″ standard and is applying for political asylum, a process that can take months.

Cheryl Little, an attorney with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, who is representing Rhinvil, wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, urging them to reunite the family.

``When I met with her, the first thing she said was, `Please help me find my children,‴ Little said. ``She feared for the worst. She thought that they had drowned.″

Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Russ Bergeron said immigration officials were considering the request.

Haitian activists also point to the outcry over the treatment of six Cubans who jumped from a 14-foot rowboat about 150 yards from shore in a desperate attempt to reach the United States in June.

News footage showed authorities blasting the Cubans with a hose as they stood in their rowboat and dousing one swimmer with pepper spray.

Two reached the beach and four were plucked from the water by the Coast Guard. All were allowed to stay in the country to pursue their claims.

Bergeron said the decision was made ``given the circumstances surrounding the Coast Guard procedures,″ and illustrated an ``exceptional circumstance.″

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