Senators Urge President Bush to Protect Haitian Refugees

March 1, 2004

The Honorable George W. Bush
President of the United States
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

We write to you to express our concern about the escalating crisis in Haiti and our obligations under U.S. and international law to protect fleeing refugees. Earlier this week, you stated that we would "turn back any [Haitian] refugee that attempts to reach our shore." This policy is in flagrant violation of our legal obligations under the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The United States has a historic commitment to protect refugees fleeing persecution. We urge you to honor our nation's obligations and ensure that such protection is available and effective.

As the political instability and violence continue in Haiti, we must prepare for a potential refugee crisis and respond in a manner that offers genuine protection. In the past, our government has implemented a series of harsh measures that undermine these standards when Haitian asylum seekers were involved. Such measures have included interdiction of Haitian boats with little or no screening for asylum; prolonged and arbitrary detention of Haitians if they do reach our shores; and expedited immigration hearings that have seriously undermined their ability to obtain representation and prepare their asylum cases.

In the current crisis it is clear that the United States should work with other nations to restore stability in Haiti and promote a peaceful solution to this crisis. It is equally clear that we have a legal and moral obligation to protect refugees forced to flee such conditions. We urge the Administration to take the following steps to ensure that Haitian refugees are protected and are not sent back to Haiti:

  • Temporarily suspend all deportations to Haiti: We should temporarily halt all deportations to Haiti. At a time when our government has recalled U.S. Embassy personnel and warned U.S. citizens to leave the island, it is unconscionable at the same time to continue to deport Haitians back to Haiti when violence is rampant. Canada and the Dominican Republic have temporarily halted the deportation of Haitians from their countries, and we should follow their example.

  • Temporarily suspend removal proceedings and release Haitian asylum seekers from detention: We should temporarily suspend removal proceedings and release Haitian asylum seekers from detention. Most of the Haitians in question have demonstrated a credible fear of persecution, have family or community contacts willing to sponsor them, do not pose a flight risk, and would not pose a danger to the community. These factors would normally have resulted in grants of parole from detention, but Haitians have been singled out for more restrictive treatment.

  • Provide protections to Haitians interdicted at sea: We should halt the current policy that returns interdicted Haitians with no screening for asylum and no guarantee for their safety. In the midst of the current violence, we have interdicted close to 900 Haitians and are returning all but 1 or 2. Our procedure to properly screen Haitian refugees is abysmal. Only those interdicted Haitians who pass the "shout test" -- loudly protesting their return - are asked whether they fear persecution if returned to Haiti. In stark contrast, all interdicted Cubans are individually interviewed regarding their fear of persecution and all interdicted Chinese are given a questionnaire to fill out to assess their fear of return. This disparate treatment should immediately stop. At a minimum, all interdicted Haitians should be interviewed individually to determine whether they fear retuning to Haiti. While conducting asylum screenings on Coast Guard cutters is better than no screenings, it fails to properly protect potential refugees. Processing Haitians in the Dominican Republic or other neighboring countries is the best option to provide adequate protections.

  • Protect Haitians fleeing into other countries or remaining in Haiti: We should work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other international organizations to ensure that other Caribbean countries do not close their borders to fleeing Haitians, and do provide them with safe haven. Our willingness to provide protection will have a substantial effect on other countries in the region. American leadership by example is essential. In the past, other Caribbean nations have been reluctant to protect Haitians who have crossed their borders. By offering to resettle our share of Haitian refugees, the United States will set an example that other nations are more likely to follow. By refusing to act, America will lose respect as a world leader in refugee protection, and the consequences for the refugees in this region could be devastating.

  • Grant Temporary Protected Status to Haitians currently in the U.S: We should grant Temporary Protected Status to Haitians currently in the U.S. Haiti clearly meets the criteria for TPS designation. There is widespread and ongoing armed conflict. Requiring Haitians in the United States to return to their country under present conditions would be a serious threat to their safety. TPS would allow Haitians to remain in the U.S. legally until it is safe for them to return. Deferring the deportation of thousands of Haitians at this time would contribute to greater political stability in that country, and serve our foreign policy interests.

Protecting innocent civilians forced from their homes by this violent turmoil is an important cornerstone of our effort to restore peace and stability in Haiti. Our actions should make clear that the United States recognizes the severity of the situation in Haiti and is deeply concerned about the victims of this tragic conflict. We urge you to adopt the steps we have suggested, and we look forward to working with you and the Administration to meet our security concerns in a way that upholds our obligation to protect refugees.

With great respect and appreciation,


Edward M. Kennedy

Patrick J. Leahy

Richard J. Durbin

Cite as AILA Doc. No. 04030965.