Haitians dash for freedom
By CORALIE CARLSON, Associated Press
MIAMI -- More than 200 illegal Haitian immigrants jumped overboard, waded ashore and rushed onto a major highway Tuesday after their 50-foot wooden freighter ran aground off Virginia Key.
The Coast Guard spotted the vessel about 2 p.m. and followed the boat, said Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz. They came ashore near Hobie Beach on Rickenbacker Causeway leading to Key Biscayne.
Miami Police counted 206 immigrants, the youngest about 18 months old, Detective Delrish Moss said.
The migrants departed from Port-au-Prince and picked up three Cubans on a raft along the way, said North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin, a Haitian-American who went to the scene and spoke to some of the migrants. Moss said they had been at sea for eight days.
There were no known fatalities. Three pregnant women were taken to a hospital, but there were no injuries other than dehydration, Moss said. At least two women were brought to ambulances on stretchers.
Some of the Haitians jumped from the deck of the boat; others were lowered into the water. They ran into the streets, causing the six-lane Rickenbacker Causeway to be shut down for hours.
Coast Guard personnel could be seen pulling migrants from the water and throwing them life preservers. Children could be seen being dropped from the edge of the boat to the waiting arms of people in the water.
'They were all over the front of the boat, the top of the boat, the back of the boat. They were all over it,' said windsurfer Ovidio DeLeon, who witnessed the scene. 'Then they started jumping.'
Seven helicopters and five Coast Guard boats searched for migrants who had jumped overboard.
Hours after they arrived, the immigrants' empty boat was towed away and the migrants were loaded onto five buses. Police escorted the buses to Krome Detention Center in west Miami-Dade County for processing.
About 20 protesters gathered at Virginia Key, just southeast of Miami's downtown, many of them carrying signs demanding the migrants' release.
Border Patrol agents had begun interviewing the migrants, said spokesman Carlos Roches.
'If they claim political asylum, we will process them accordingly,' Roches said.
Thousands of Haitians each year risk dangerous voyages aboard rickety, crowded boats in search of economic opportunities.
Many are driven to risk their lives because of crushing poverty in their homeland, the hemisphere's poorest country where two-thirds of the population is unemployed or underemployed and most people survive on less than $1 a day.
'It's very sad to see the way human beings who are fleeing their country for a better way of life are treated,' Celestin said. 'The Cubans that were on the same boat will be released. The Haitians will probably be deported. It's a double standard.'
In December, a ship with 187 Haitian migrants grounded off Elliot Key. Most of those migrants are still being detained by immigration officials in South Florida.
The Bush administration changed its detention policy on Haitian refugees in December to discourage a feared mass exodus from the impoverished Caribbean nation. Immigration attorneys sued the government in March, saying the new policy of detention was racially biased.
Human rights advocates said the policy treats Haitians differently than asylum seekers from other countries, who are generally freed until their asylum requests are granted or denied.
'It is plainly and simply a racist policy that singles out black Haitians and denies them the treatment we give other groups seeking asylum,' U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Miami, said in a statement.
'They imprison Haitians indefinitely; they don't release Haitians into the care of the Haitian community; they don't let Haitians get the help they need to prepare their asylum cases; and then the deport them,' Meek said.
Gov. Jeb Bush said he spoke to White House officials about the migrants' status.
'I have been assured that these individuals will receive fair and decent treatment by federal authorities,' Bush said.
The men will most likely be brought to Krome immigrant detention center west of Miami, said Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. The women will probably be sent to Broward jails and unaccompanied children will likely be placed at Boys Town in west Miami-Dade, she said.
'If they can convince an asylum officer that they have a credible fear of persecution upon return to Haiti then ... they should be quickly released so they can find an attorney and have a fair opportunity to make their case for asylum,' Little said.
-- Associated Press Writer Brian Bandell in Miami contributed to this story.
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