U.S. Criticized for Repatriating Haitians

Haitian-Americans and immigrant advocates criticized the Bush administration Friday for sending more than 500 Haitian migrants (search) back to face a violent uprising in their homeland.

The Coast Guard returned 531 people, including infants, near the capital of Port-Au-Prince (search) on Friday. That was the number of Haitians who had been intercepted at sea near their nation's coast since Feb. 21.

"It is our intention, upon rescuing Haitian migrants from peril at sea aboard grossly overloaded and unseaworthy vessels, to immediately repatriate them in a safe and secure manner," said Rear Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr., commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District (search).

Haitian-American groups and immigrant advocates wanted the government to consider the rebellion in Haiti that has left about 80 people dead.

"Given the current political crisis in Haiti, we could be returning people to their death," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (search). "It is unconscionable that the world's greatest democracy is not doing more to welcome refugees from a tiny neighbor that is teetering on the edge of political chaos."

The Rev. Jonas Georges, a Haitian-American activist, said the decision showed a "lack of consideration for human suffering."

"One would think that the American government would at least give these people a chance to sort of catch their breath until things calm down," he said. "But taking them back home, I think, is outrageous."

President Bush has repeated the government's policy to turn back any Haitian migrant trying to reach U.S. shores.

The activists called on Bush to take more action to stop the fighting in Haiti to avoid a mass exodus of Haitians to Florida. Under Haiti's military dictatorship between 1991 and 1994, more than 65,000 Haitians were intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard. Most were sent home.

Coast Guard officials are monitoring growing violence in Haiti for signs of an increase in illegal migration to Florida.

"While we have seen a recent surge in migrants from Haiti, at this time there are no indicators of a mass migration," Johnson said.

Authorities on Friday completed an investigation of 21 Haitians on a freighter that the Coast Guard intercepted off the Florida coast on Wednesday. The FBI turned the case over to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which said the group was no longer suspected of hijacking the ship.

A Customs spokeswoman said the Haitians probably will be returned to their home country.