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Haitian policy angers refugee advocates

MIAMI -- Refugee activists, angered by President Bush's new Haitian policy, called Monday for a U.S. blockade to enforce the economic embargo against Haiti and put additional pressure on its military leaders.

'Our government has the ability, if it wanted, to get rid of the thugs that are running Haiti,' said Jack Lieberman of the New Jewish Agenda, one of several Miami groups protesting the Bush decision.

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'If we were to block the oil tankers and prosecute smugglers that are running out of the Miami River and sending illegal goods to Haiti, this crisis could be resolved in a month or two,' he said. 'Until democracy is restored in Haiti, this problem will not go away.'

The president Sunday ordered the interdiction of Haitian refugee vessels, permitting the Coast Guard to immediately return U.S.-bound boat people to their troubled homeland.

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Until Thursday, the agency had been taking the refugees to a temporary camp at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for interviews with immigration agents.

When the camp reached its capacity of 12,500 refugees Thursday, the Coast Guard began halting only those boats in immediate danger of sinking.

Since Thursday, only one refugee boat with 35 Haitians aboard had been intercepted and 'a handful' of others sailed past Coast Guard patrols, presumably headed for Florida, said Petty Officer Toni Long.

The Coast Guard does not know their whereabouts.

'We do know there are still some out there that were previous sightings but we don't have any way of tracking specific boats. They have no hull numbers or radios and some that do have names use the same name as others,' Long said.

No Haitian refugee boats have been stopped or sighted since Bush issued his executive order Sunday, she said.

Bush said the action was 'necessary to protect the lives of the Haitians, whose boats are not equipped for the 600-mile sea journey' to the United States.

Returning to Washington from a holiday weekend at his Kennebunkport, Maine, home, Bush defended his order when questioned Monday afternoon by White House reporters. 'We've done the right thing,' he said. 'We're doing the right thing. Those people will be screened.'

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But Ira Kurzban, an attorney for the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami, said returning Haitians to their homeland without permitting them to speak to immigration agents could violate the United States' treaty with Haiti as well as international refugee agreements.

He said the Refugee Center is considering legal action, but declined to elaborate.

A coalition of Miami Jewish groups criticized the presidential order and urged the United States to grant the Haitians temporary refuge on humanitarian grounds.

'If we are to uphold the principles of human rights that have been the hallmark of this great land since our founding, we have a moral obligation to give these people refuge,' Lieberman said.

'We've taken people from all other parts of the world. We take in every Cuban that comes to these shores. Why should black Haitians be treated differently?'

The group, which included the Rabbinical Asociation of Greater Miami and the American Jewish Congress, also called for increased enforcement of the economic embargo adopted by the Organization of American States in October to pressure Haiti's military leaders to restore democracy.

The Coast Guard has picked up more than 34,000 Haitian refugees since the September coup that overthrew democratically elected President Jean- Bertrand Aristide.

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More than one-third were returned to Haiti after immigration agents determined them to be economic, and not political, refugees. More than 12,000 are at Guantanamo, with about 9,000 of them awaiting asylum claims.

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