Let's agree on this. That Haitians, more than anyone else in the world right now, fit the following description: "Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

Anybody who has ever spent time in the slums along the shore of Port-au-Prince, and I have, knows they teem, and are most certainly wretched.

Right now, their inhabitants are probably pretty tired and huddled and having a hard time breathing, too, given the clouds of plaster and cement dust in the air of their destroyed city.

Famously, the plaque on the Statue of Liberty asks the world to "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me."


An overloaded Haitian migrant vessel, prior to being picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard in February 2004. The U.S. was then repatriating more than 500 boat people who had attempted the 900-kilometre journey to Florida, fleeing a deadly revolt in Haiti. (Reuters)

The thing is, that plaque proclaims an ideal, not U.S. government policy, which is actually just the opposite, especially where Haiti is concerned.

'You will not be forsaken'

Now, this is not to diss the American rescue effort in Haiti.

What other country on Earth is able, and willing, to send an aircraft carrier, a hospital ship, thousands of troops, search and rescue teams, and endless military transport planes loaded with food, water and medical supplies?

And who, other than Americans, are regularly moved by such horrific TV images to give so much of their personal treasure?

Americans are great donors to charity, more than anyone else, in fact, and without them the Haitian nightmare would be considerably worse.

But there is also an unspoken motive at work in all this.

Successive U.S. administrations, acutely aware that America is separated from all that grinding misery by "just a few hundred miles of ocean," as President Barack Obama put it the other day, have pursued one overarching goal: keep Haitians in Haiti.

There can be no argument about this. Haitians, more than any other nationality, have been singled out for special, exclusionary treatment.

When President Obama promised them this week "you will not be forsaken," it would be understandable if many of them thought they already have been, for decades.

Detain and return

Haitians have been risking the 900-kilometre boat trip to Florida now for half a century.

It would be impossible to argue that people fleeing the brutality of "Papa Doc" Duvalier were not refugees, entitled to asylum under international conventions.

But, being Haitians, the early arrivals were denied a new home, turned around and sent back to the tender mercies of Duvalier's vicious enforcers, the Tontons Macoutes. And so it has been ever since.

Ronald Reagan actually signed a deal with Papa Doc's equally villainous son, Baby Doc, formalizing the detain-and-return arrangement.

The harder Haitians tried to flee, the more determined America became to turn them back.

Naval blockade

In the early 1990s, after the political inheritors of the Duvaliers deposed the democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, flotillas of rickety boats sailed into the shark-infested seas, heading to imagined sanctuary in the U.S.

The election of Bill Clinton brought about an anticipated softening of immigration enforcement and so the exodus intensified in 1993.

In response, Washington put up a naval blockade. The U.S. navy was ordered to intercept the boats at sea and return their occupants to Haiti, without even bothering to assess their claims of asylum.

Some were diverted to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay and detained like prisoners behind razor wire.

Meanwhile, any Cuban who could reach the sands of South Florida was automatically granted asylum.

It's easy to put that down to "South Florida politics," meaning the vaunted political clout of the Cuban community there. But everyone knows there was more at play.

As Charlie Rangel, the Democratic congressman for Harlem, put it to the immigration commissioner at the time: "Is there any question in your mind, that if the people on these boats came from Ireland we would exercise the same policy?"

The commissioner called the question offensive, but conservative icon Pat Buchanan, in a later interview, provided a more honest answer:

"If we had to take in a million immigrants, say Zulus, next year, or Englishmen, and put them up in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia?"

Temporary respite

It is also a fact of life here that Haitians who have made it into the U.S. have been consistently refused the designation of Temporary Protected Status.

That was the case even in 2008, when four hurricanes destroyed Haitian crops, livestock, 23,000 homes and nearly a thousand schools.

Temporary Protected Status allows a person to work in the U.S. and send money home.

In similar situations, it has been extended, and re-extended, to immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Kuwait, Lebanon, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Guinea-Bissau, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Montserrat, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and Angola.

But after briefly considering the Haitian situation in 2008, the George W. Bush administration resumed deportations of the roughly 30,000 Haitians facing expulsion orders.

The Obama administration, shortly after taking power, decided to continue that policy. At least until an earthquake changed its mind. The utter lunacy of deporting Haitians back to a country in a state of complete collapse has finally stayed Washington's hand.

This week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the deportations would be halted "for the time being."

And then, on Friday, she announced the administration would, at long last, extend Temporary Protection Status to Haitians. Every citizen of that country who was in the U.S. as of Jan. 12, when the quake struck, can now stay indefinitely, and work.

Still, that leaves an estimated two million displaced persons wandering around Haiti at the moment, many of them sick, elderly or wounded. Desperation is building.

As a State Department memo to the National Security Council warned a few years ago, "Haitian boatlifts spike when the U.S. waffles on enforcing immigration law against Haitians."

There is talk here of reviving Guantanamo Bay as some sort of transition camp. Washington is still anxious to avoid another incoming flotilla. Napolitano warned Friday that any Haitians trying to flee their country for the United States would be intercepted and turned back.

Canada, which loosened its refugee rules for Haitians during the 1970s and '80s during the Duvalier years, is talking again about "fast-tracking" new asylum seekers.

But providing aid to the stricken country is now Washington's top priority. No logistical expense is too great, especially if it helps keep Haitians in Haiti.