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Elian's Haitian Cousin

While America has focused her eyes on the fate of a cute 6-year-old boy from Cuba, a dirty little secret has been brought to light. That secret or previously glossed over fact is that America's immigration law does not treat everybody equally. If Elian were Haitian he may not be in America today.

Under similar circumstances, a refugee seeking to enter the U.S. could either be rejected or accepted depending upon what part of the world he or she came from. Immigrants and refugees from Haiti for instance, are not treated the same as those from Cuba. And why? Because the U.S. makes its immigration policy partially based upon its view of the nation from which the person comes from and not simply upon the merits of each individual's circumstance and/or ability to meet specific requirements for citizenship. Sometimes, even if the person enters the country illegally, he or she may be able to stay in the United States depending upon their nation of origin. It should come as no surprise that this process can become very political. And that is exactly what happened in the case of Elian Gonzalez.

In Elian's case, the law was clear that he should be returned to Cuba yet the Justice Department moved slowly. And in so doing they opened up America's immigration policy for all to view. Many wondered why was Elian being treated differently from other immigrants particularly from the Caribbean, that would have been sent back almost immediately under similar circumstances to those of Elian. One person who began to wonder aloud was Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-Fl) who posed questions to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) as to why the policies were different from country to country. He never received satisfactory answers. So he took matters into his own hands and did something rather dramatic to make a point.

Rep. Hastings located a six-year old Haitian girl, Sophonie Telcy, and introduced a bill in Congress (H.R. 4179) that would immediately grant Sophonie permanent resident status. The language and intent of the bill is the same as the one for Elian Gonzalez. Hastings wanted the country and the world to see that even if the circumstances of a Haitian and Cuban were similar -- almost to the letter -- U.S. law would not judge them the same.

On April 10 while on Fox TV's The Edge with Paula Zahn, Rep. Hastings was asked about his motivation for introducing the bill. In a very illuminating fashion Hastings responded:

She has no immediate family in the US or Haiti. Yet while the world awaits the fate of Elian, and the Congress members push to make him a citizen, the plight of Sophanie remains unknown…I think she is being treated this way because she's Haitian, and I think that other refugees receive disparate treatment as well. And that's why I feel it incumbent upon myself and others to pay attention to our Immigration and Nationality Act, and how it discriminates, and particularly to pay attention to the Immigration and Naturalization Services, which tends to pick and choose who they determine should be admitted to the United States…Sophanie's case is even worse than Elian's. There are no relatives in Haiti and no relatives here in the United States. So she can't even find herself in a position of comfort by having relatives that want her. I don't know what Immigration is going to do with her. I know that I am going to continue to fight for her. And I do believe that the law does not cover children sufficiently. And if nothing more, congresspersons ought to learn that we have a responsibility to make the Immigration and Nationality Act very clear.

Because Hastings' bill is private in that it deals with only one individual it cannot attract co-sponsors. But the bill does have support from Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fl.) and Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fl.). Passage of H.R. 4179 is doubtful but Hastings plans to continue to work to reform U.S. immigration policy. That may be a lengthy task that may outlast his time in Congress due to the fact that changes to immigration policy can take anywhere from 3-7 years. But whether he is personally able to bring about reform or not, at least the dirty little secret is out.

Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, April 13, 2000

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