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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Desperate Voyage

Aired October 30, 2002 - 07:16   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: More than 200 Haitians are being held now in a detention center awaiting processing this morning after jumping off a ship and then dashing to shore yesterday in Miami. Their quest for freedom could be a short-lived one. Haitian immigrants usually are denied asylum in the U.S.
Here now with the latest on the story is our own Mark Potter.

Hello -- Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Leon.

We're at the Krome Immigrant Processing Center near Miami, where most of the Haitians were brought last night after jumping off that freighter. A few went to the hospital, some are being kept on a Coast Guard cutter, but most are here now awaiting INS processing.

There were no fatalities reported yesterday, but as you will see, it was a potentially dangerous situation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

POTTER (voice-over): The 50-foot wooden coastal freighter, grossly overloaded with more than 200 Haitian migrants, ran around within sight of the downtown skyline, about 20 yards south of the bridge between Miami and Key Biscayne.

As the boat reached shallow water, the Haitians began jumping overboard -- men, women and children desperate to reach dry land. Some of them took off their shoes, threw them as far as they could, then retrieved them on shore. Some hit deeper water, couldn't swim and had to be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Most, however, made it easily to shore, and began running through traffic on the bridge; some approaching motorists, apparently seeking rides to leave the area.

MAYOR JOE CELESTIN, NORTH MIAMI, FLORIDA: They were really desperate. It shows clearly on their faces. And it was very unhuman the way they were flying off the ship. And I hope the United States would give them the proper care and understand these people are looking and seeking a better life.

POTTER: Local and federal authorities quickly converged, sealed off the roadway and began to round up the Haitians. They were taken into custody, and are being held in an immigration detention facility, where INS officials say they will be given food, water and clothing, before they are questioned about whether they have a credible fear of persecution in Haiti and the right to political asylum in the U.S.

Legal and political activist are urging fair treatment.

LIDA RODRIGUEZ-TASEFF, PRESIDENT ACLU GREATER MIAMI: If they do demonstrate that political fear, what should be happening is that they should be released to relatives or friends in the community.

POTTER: As police rounded up the migrants, a handful of Haitian- Americans protested U.S. immigration policy, which gives special privileges to Cuban immigrants. Haitians are often seen as economic migrants, and are frequently sent back to Haiti.

CHERYL LITTLE, Florida IMMIGRANT ADVOCACY CENTER: They're not from a communist country, and so folks tend to assume that they're simply economic refugees. They don't have the kind of political clout that a lot of other groups have. And frankly, I think the color of their skin has something to do with it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

POTTER: Now, immigrant advocates say that they will ask INS officials to release most of these Haitians as soon as they cans, so that they can hire lawyers and more effectively argue their asylum claims. But those advocates also concede that even if that happens, it's highly likely that most of these Haitians will be sent back to their home country. No word yet from the INS on how all of this will take place -- Leon.

HARRIS: Well, Mark, I know you've covered a number of these sort of assaults there on the beach, if you will, over the years. As a matter of fact, I was listening yesterday as you were doing the liver coverage on this one.

Has anyone talked to any of these people yet to figure out exactly what is happening now to cause this to happen? It's been awhile since we've seen this.

POTTER: It has been awhile. The last boatload like this we saw 10 months ago in December.

Some of the accounts that I have come across from yesterday indicate that these people said that life in Haiti was simply becoming untenable, that they had to get out.

But we don't have a very clear picture yet of exactly why they left, and that's a critical point, because they're going to have to argue that they are fleeing political persecution and that they have a credible fear of persecution if they go back in order to stay here. If they left solely for economic reasons, that's typically not good enough, and they will be sent back.

HARRIS: Mark Potter reporting live for us this morning. Thank you very much, Mark.

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