MIAMI – Six people were charged Wednesday with attempting to smuggle more than 200 Haitian migrants into the United States, officials said.
The names of the defendants and further details were not immediately released Wednesday. A press conference was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
A freighter carrying 211 Haitian migrants ran aground Tuesday afternoon. The Haitians jumped overboard, rushing to shore and causing a traffic jam as they tried to flag down cars. All of this was broadcast live on national television.
Twenty-one of the Haitians had to be rescued after jumping from the overloaded boat into water 10- to 12-feet deep and becoming too fatigued to make it to shore, Coast Guard Lt. Jeffrey Smith said.
"It was extremely dangerous. You had these people who had been on this boat for a number of days without food, without water," Smith said Wednesday on NBC's Today show. "They were already weak and then they were jumping into the water."
Border Patrol agents rounded up 208 other migrants, including young children who had been dropped from the boat and carried to land by adults. They were awaiting processing Wednesday at a detention center, and Haitian activists feared they would be deported.
Thousands of Haitians each year risk dangerous voyages aboard rickety, crowded boats to flee the 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.
Unlike Cubans who reach dry land, though, Haitian immigrants usually are denied asylum in the United States and sent back to their homeland.
The Bush administration quietly changed its detention policy on Haitian refugees in December to discourage a feared mass exodus. Before the policy change, Haitian migrants applying for asylum were released into the community while their petitions were processed. Haitians arriving since December, however, are kept in immigration custody.
Immigration attorneys sued the government in March, saying the new policy of detention was racially biased.
"It's very sad to see the way human beings who are fleeing their country for a better way of life are treated," said North Miami Mayor Joe Celestin, a Haitian-American who went to the scene and spoke to some of the migrants. "The Cubans that were on the same boat will be released. The Haitians will probably be deported. It's a double standard."
Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, a black Miami Democrat, had a sharp exchange Wednesday morning. Bush, who is running for re-election, was in Miami to accept the endorsement of some local blacks.
Meek demanded that Bush call his brother, President Bush, and persuade him to treat Haitians just like Cubans, with those reaching land receiving asylum.
"Those Haitians are standing on dry land. My blood....I love them. You can do it," Meek told Bush.
The governor reminded Meek that they worked together four years ago to make immigration policy fairer for Haitians and that he agrees with her that they should be released until their asylum request is heard.
"Haitians should be treated in the same fashion that Jamaicans, people from the Bahamas, people from any country in the world," Bush said. "There should be equal treatment and that's my position."
Jean Robert Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, said Wednesday this latest crisis poses a leadership test for Bush, and could possibly help him in the upcoming election.
Lafortune joined around thirty protesters outside the Liberty City Learning Center, where Bush was expected to make a campaign stop.
"If Bush could champion the issue, he could shift the balance in the election," Lafortune said. He said he has repeatedly appealed to Bush to use his influence as the president's brother to help the Haitians. "The time for lip service is over."
The U.S. Coast Guard spotted the 50-foot wooden vessel Tuesday and followed it for about two hours, said Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz. The boat ran aground about 500 yards from shore and the immigrants ran to land 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, including small children, were lowered into the water to struggle to shore. Once on land, they ran onto six-lane Rickenbacker Causeway, many trying to flag down cars and causing the roadway to be shut down for over three hours.
"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."
About 4,000 immigrants have been interdicted at sea this year, including about 1,500 Haitians, Coast Guard Commander Jim McPherson said.