MIAMI – Six people were charged Wednesday with trying to smuggle more than 200 Haitians into the country aboard a rickety freighter. Activists, meanwhile, urged Gov. Jeb Bush to prevent authorities from deporting the Haitians, who jumped overboard and dashed into a roadway to flag down cars.
The White House said President Bush would not weigh in on any asylum question.
The Haitians swam ashore near downtown Miami after their freighter ran aground Tuesday, eight days after they left their impoverished island seeking a better life.
Twenty-one 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. Boarder Patrol agents rounded up 208 others, including young children.
It wasn't immediately clear who the six people charged Wednesday were or how they were arrested.
Unlike Cubans who reach dry land, Haitian immigrants usually are denied asylum in the United States and sent back to their homeland.
Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., on Wednesday demanded that Gov. Jeb Bush call his brother, the president, and persuade him to treat the Haitians like Cuban refugees.
"Those Haitians are standing on dry land. ... You can do it," Meek told the governor, who is running for re-election.
Gov. Bush told Meek he agrees that the Haitians should be released until their asylum request is heard. He had said earlier that he spoke to White House officials and was assured the Haitians would receive "fair and decent treatment." "There should be equal treatment and that's my position," he said.
"If Bush could champion the issue, he could shift the balance in the election," said Jean Robert Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. "The time for lip service is over."
However, press secretary Ari Fleischer said the president would not get involved despite any political pressure that may arise.
"If the question is, because it's six days before an election should the president start to interfere with the actual workings of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the answer is no -- whether it's one day, six days or 364 days before an election," Fleischer said. "The laws of our land are the laws of our land and they should be enforced by the proper authorities."
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.
The Bush administration changed its detention policy on Haitian refugees in December to discourage a feared mass exodus. 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 spoke to some of the migrants.
The crew of a Coast Guard boat spotted the 50-foot wooden freighter 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.
"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 a morning talk show. "They were already weak and then they were jumping into the water."
About 4,000 immigrants have been interdicted at sea this year, including about 1,500 Haitians, the Coast Guard said.