The spectacle of Haitian migrants crammed into leaky boats headed for the United States has led to judicial decisions and well-intentioned Congressional proposals that would be disastrous for this country and fatal to thousands who would be encouraged to attempt the hazardous 600-mile voyage.
An exodus similar to the Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cubans to this country in 1980, would create a fiscal crisis in Florida, especially in communities that would have to absorb thousands of destitute migrants.
Worse still, it is likely (and probably already the case) that the number of Haitians who drown at sea will be greater than the number of Haitians who were killed by the leaders of the military coup on September 29th that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Two judicial decisions have barred the Govern-ment from repatriating Haitians rescued on the high seas; this has turned a trickle of migrants into a steady stream.
Several bills in Congress would grant temporary protected status to any Haitian who survives the voyage; most of them probably would be allowed to stay permanently, and this would turn the steady stream into a mass exodus.
Citizens of that overcrowded island, where per capita income is about $360 a year, have sought to escape on unseaworthy vessels for decades. The current increase in migrants did not begin until a month after the coup, when the effects of the embargo imposed by the Organization of American States began to be felt.
The State Department estimates that half of all Haitians trying to reach the United States do not complete the voyage; at least 135 have died already. Congressional proposals offering temporary protection status to Haitians, therefore, would be tantamount to an official inducement to play Russian roulette.
No previous grant of temporary protected status to other nationalities has included an open-ended invitation for people to leave their homelands and come to the US. In each previous instance, asylum was granted only to those already here. No group that has been granted temporary status has ever gone home, and the Haitians surely would be no exception.
Many proponents of temporary status for Haitians, principally Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, argue that the United States os treating the migrants unfairly for racial reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth. More than a million Haitians - one-sixth of their country's population - live in the US. Moreover, Haiti has been a leading source of legal immigration to the US, with more than 130,000 admitted in the past decade.
South Florida, where most of the Haitians would wind up, has yet to recover from the effects of the Mariel boatlift. The bill for resettling the 125,000 Cubans who arrived in 1980 and a nearly equal number of Nicaraguans who were granted tempor-ary status in 1990 has come to well over a billion dollars, most of it footed by local taxpayers.
The US Government must take steps to insure the safe departure and protection of legitimate political refugees from Haiti without setting off a perilous exodus. While things are still manageable, we must begin the screening process in Haiti, not on the high seas nor once the immigrants have landed in Florida. Those who have a plausible fear of perse-cution should be transported for temporary protection to the US or other countries such as Honduras or Venezuela, which have already accepted Haitians.
In our sincere efforts to help the Haitians and restore their democratically elected government, we must do more than mean well. We must be sure that, at the very least, our policies do not cause further harm.