WASHINGTON — Advocates for immigrants, and more than two dozen Democrats in Congress, criticized the Bush administration on Thursday for continuing to return Haitian migrants to a country in turmoil as government officials warned that the number of Haitians taking to the seas had begun to surge.
Coast Guard officials said they had picked up 695 Haitians at sea this month, including a freighter carrying 21 Haitians that was stopped seven miles off Miami on Wednesday.
The figure for February alone exceeds the number of Haitians interdicted during the first four months of the last fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2003, and provides the first indication that growing numbers of people have begun to flee.
Officials said about 500 migrants were being held aboard Coast Guard cutters on Thursday and would be sent back to Haiti on Friday. At least three people, who expressed fear of persecution in Haiti, have been sent to the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The rest have been returned to Haiti.
Government officials say they plan to continue deporting illegal immigrants and those caught at sea, saying the overwhelming majority of Haitian migrants are fleeing poverty, not political repression.
But advocacy groups and several members of Congress argue that the government is denying refugees fair access to the American asylum process. They said the government should not send Haitians home when it has deemed the country dangerous enough to evacuate non-essential personnel and deploy marines to guard the American Embassy.
"To send people back into the kind of killing field that Haiti has descended to is a violation of all that refugee status and humanitarianism calls for," Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, said in a telephone interview.
Coast Guard officials have returned at least 233 Haitians caught fleeing Haiti by boat since Dec. 30.
Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said Haitians living in the United States illegally would continue to be deported and those picked up at sea would continue to be sent back, unless they presented a well-founded fear of persecution. Advocates for immigrants said they feared that the government was abdicating its responsibilities to Haitian refugees.
President Bush said Wednesday that American officials would "turn back any refugee that attempts to reach our shore" from Haiti.
Eleanor Acer, asylum director for Human Rights First, said, "It sends a very clear message that the U.S. is not willing to step up and accept its legal and moral obligation to accept refugees, particularly when the refugees at issue are at our own doorstep." Immigration officials said they believed that Mr. Bush had misspoken. They said they were screening Haitians migrants and sending economic migrants back to Haiti.
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