MIAMI – In a development that drew even more scrutiny to the security of the nation's borders, 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 Miami.
Late Tuesday night and early into Wednesday morning, about 100 protesters marched outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Miami, chanting in Creole: "No no, we won't go, if you send us away we'll come back. America is for all of us." The demonstrators asked for access to the Haitians and requested legal representation for them.
There were no known fatalities in the refugees' trip over and no injuries other than dehydration, Detective Delrish Moss said. Miami police counted 206 immigrants, the youngest about 18 months old.
The Haitians 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 Haitians. Moss said they had been at sea for eight days.
The Coast Guard spotted the vessel about 2 p.m. and followed it for about two hours, said Guard spokesman Luis Diaz. The boat ran aground and the immigrants began coming ashore near Hobie Beach on Virginia Key, just southeast of Miami's downtown.
"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."
Some of the Haitians jumped from the deck; others were lowered into the water. They ran into the streets, causing the six-lane Rickenbacker Causeway to be shut down.
Coast Guard personnel were seen pulling people from the water and throwing them life preservers; children were transferred from the boat to people in the water.
Border Patrol agents had begun interviewing the Haitians, said spokesman Carlos Roches. "If they claim political asylum, we will process them accordingly," he said.
Unlike Cubans who reach dry land, Haitian immigrants usually are denied asylum in the United States and sent back to their homeland, which is in an economic and political crisis.
"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."
The Bush administration changed its detention policy on Haitian refugees in December to discourage a feared mass exodus from the 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.
Gov. Jeb Bush said he spoke to White House officials about the Haitians' status. "I have been assured that these individuals will receive fair and decent treatment by federal authorities," Bush said.
Thousands of Haitians each year risk dangerous voyages aboard rickety, crowded boats in search of economic opportunities.
Some end up in the Turks and Caicos Islands, others in the Bahamas, and some make it to Florida. Many are sent back home.
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.
"The boat people phenomenon is a manifestation of distress," said former Haitian President Leslie Manigat. "Haitians have no hope because their government has failed to give them any."
Haiti's chronically depressed economy has further declined amid political crisis since disputed parliamentary elections in 2000. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's party won 80 percent of seats, but the opposition alleges rigging. Millions of dollars in foreign aid money has been frozen because of the dispute.
In December, a ship with 187 Haitians grounded off Elliot Key. Most of those Haitians are still being detained by immigration officials in South Florida.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.