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The BBC's Malcolm Brabbant in Miami
The BBC's Malcolm Brabbant in Miami
 real 28k

Sunday, 2 January, 2000, 05:43 GMT
Appeal for Haitian boat people

Haiti boat More than 400 immigrants were packed into the boat

Leaders of the Haitian community in Florida are trying to persuade the authorities to allow more than 400 would-be illegal immigrants to stay in the United States.

The immigrants - most of them from Haiti - were packed into a dangerously overcrowded boat that ran aground off the Florida coast, just south of Miami, in the early hours of New Year's Day.

We've seen an increase in smuggling activity over the holidays. There's a perception that it's easier at this time, but that's false.
Coast Guard Commander Ron LaBrec
US Coast Guard officials managed to take all those on board to safety, racing against changing tidal conditions that threatened to capsize the wooden vessel.

The boat's passengers are currently being held aboard four Coast Guard ships and officials say they will be sent back to Haiti in the next few days. Haitian community leaders in the US say this is unfair

They say that if the immigrants had been from Cuba, they would have been given a chance to ask for asylum.

Equal justice

Coast Guard officials said there was a serious danger the boat would capsize
On Saturday around 100 Haitians living in Miami protested outside the main Coast Guard base to demand equal justice for their compatriots.

Among them was Florida Congresswoman Carrie Meek who had lobbied immigration officials in Washington to allow the boat's human cargo to stay.

Opponents argue that allowing the Haitians to stay would attract further boatloads of impoverished immigrants from America's backyard.

The latest arrivals had mistakenly thought the Americans would let down their guard during the millennium celebrations.

But their boat was intercepted at about 0030 (0530 GMT) near Key Biscayne, a small island just off Miami, as revellers rang in the new millennium and fireworks lit up the sky.

The captain refused orders to stop but the boat ran aground at about 0400 local time in Biscayne Bay.

Rescue operation

Four rescue boats, five patrol boats, two cutters and a helicopter were sent to assist the migrants.

We tried to talk them into stopping. They wouldn't stop [and] continued on their path to try to make it to US soil
Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Carr
Life jackets were handed out to the would-be refugees who packed the vessel from bow to stem. Scores of others were crammed into the lower decks.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Scott Carr said the migrants would be interviewed by agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The most likely outcome is that a Coast Guard cutter will carry the Haitians back to Port-au-Prince.

Thousands of Haitians have attempted the 1000km (600 mile) voyage to Florida's shores, often in small leaky boats.

Most are considered to be fleeing poverty rather than political oppression and are subsequently repatriated.

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13 May 98 |  Americas
Miami police hunt for Haitians

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