THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
STATEMENT BY GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS
Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning the current repatriation policy regarding Haitian asylum-seekers. At that time, the Justice Department supported the President's legal authority to carry out the practice of direct return. The President believes it is essential that he retain the ability to implement such measures when exceptional circumstances demand.
The current practice of direct returns is based on the President's conviction that it is necessary to avert a humanitarian tragedy that could result from a large boat exodus. Hundreds, if not thousands, could lose their lives in overloaded, unseaworthy vessels if the U.S. reversed the practice of direct return precipitously.
At the same time, the President regards the current practice of direct return as a policy for exceptional circumstances. It is continually under review, and will be adjusted when conditions permit.
In addition, the President is taking a series of initiatives to promote human rights and democratization in Haiti and to enhance the safety and well-being of those who have reason to fear persecution.
First, the Clinton Administration strongly has supported the negotiating process undertaken by the United Nations and the Organization of American States (UN/OAS) and has urged other nations, both within and outside the hemisphere, to provide diplomatic and financial support to the UN/OAS effort. A UN/OAS civilian monitoring team now is being deployed in Haiti. We hope and expect that their presence will create an atmosphere conducive to respect for human rights and political dialogue, including progress on a settlement to this crisis.
The President will continue efforts to move the negotiating process forward as expeditiously as possible, leading to the restoration of constitutional government and the return of President Aristide. President Clinton will meet with President Aristide on March 16 to review the progress that has been achieved and the challenges that lie ahead.
Second, the President is committed to enhancing the safety and well-being of those in Haiti who have reason to fear reprisal for their political activities and affiliations, and has taken a number of actions to improve in-country processing of Haitian refugees -- the procedures by which Haitians may apply in Haiti for refugee status and resettlement in the United States.
Shortly after January 20, the President directed that U.S. officials double our capacity for the interviewing of refugee applicants in Haiti by officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The President also directed the State Department to send a technical mission to Haiti to develop detailed proposals for:
more rapid refugee processing;
making it easier for Haitians outside of Port-au- Prince to apply for refugee status and U.S. resettlement; and enhancing the safety of the repatriation process for returnees.
Since return of the technical team, we have streamlined procedures and added staff in Port-au-Prince, and have reduced considerably the processing time for refugee applications in Haiti. We have already developed the capacity to reduce processing time for high priority cases from two months or more to about seven working days.
The technical team, which also included congressional staff and representatives from the INS, made a series of additional recommendations for improvements in procedures, including the addition of personnel at the U.S. Refugee Processing Center in Haiti to serve as liaison with human rights groups and as a resource for INS adjudicators; procedures for identifying those who may be especially at risk; and the establishment of Processing Centers outside of Port-au-Prince to enhance access to the program for Haitians throughout Haiti.
Based on these and other recommendations made by the team, the President has directed that U.S. officials implement further improvements in the process. To accomplish these goals, the President is authorizing expenditure of up to $5 million from the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund (ERMA).
The United States has been in the forefront of refugee protection around the world. We will continue to play this important role in the years to come.
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