MIAMI – U.S. immigration officials appealed a bail ruling that could grant the release of some detained Haitians, arguing the decision could prompt a mass exodus from the impoverished nation.
A massive migration would endanger the lives of Haitians at sea and tie up Coast Guard resources that should be committed to homeland security and the war on terrorism, Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Mario Ortiz said Thursday.
"We believe that if this group was to be released, it would send a signal back to Haiti saying 'Hey we got in,' and it would trigger a mass migration that would be a threat to our national security," Ortiz said.
About 200 Haitians waded ashore near Key Biscayne after their wooden boat ran aground on Oct. 29. Forty were issued bonds as high as $4,500 by an immigration judge Wednesday on charges that they illegally entered the United States.
More bond hearings were set for Friday and next week.
Immigrants who post bond will be free until their asylum hearings, which have not been scheduled.
The INS appealed every bond granted Wednesday and will continue to do so, Ortiz said. The Haitians granted bond will remain detained until the Board of Immigration Appeals rules on their status.
Immigration advocates said releasing the Haitians does not pose a security threat.
Dina Paul Parks, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York, said releasing Haitian migrants will not fuel a mass migration.
"Folks know that the waters are patrolled. They know what their chances are. If someone decides to leave Haiti, it's for a desperate reason and I'm not sure the thought of being detained in the U.S. is worse," Parks said Thursday.
The issue was brought up before President Bush before a news conference Thursday.
"The immigration laws ought to be the same for Haitians and everybody else, except for Cubans," Bush said. "We're taking steps to make sure that happens."
A White House spokeswoman said Bush was referring to equal treatment at the immigration hearings, not a policy change. He said Cuba was an exception because they are persecuted.
The INS did not appeal the bond given Thursday to three pregnant Haitian migrants, immigration advocate Cheryl Little said.
Other illegal migrants found on U.S. soil are usually released after several days, given more time to prepare for asylum hearings and have better access to lawyers, Little said. The INS changed its policy toward Haitians after a large boatload of Haitians arrived in December, detaining them and expediting their asylum hearings.
Little said the government was discriminating against Haitians. Ortiz said the new policy is a response to growing concern of a massive migration from Haiti.