Florida Officials: No Mass Haitian Immigration Seen
Florida emergency management officials said Tuesday they are not seeing a mass Haitian exodus coming and do not expect to see one as they continue to support federal orders that call for interdicting refugees at sea and sending them back to the earthquake-rocked island nation.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said the state will continue to offer aid to the devastated nation 700 miles off Florida’s southern shore.
But the nation and the state will not offer a new home to anyone hoping to flee the devastation, and officials are working hard to discourage Haitians from taking to the seas.
“The state is focused on returning U.S. citizens to their families and supporting our federal partners,” said Crist.
Crist’s top emergency responder told reporters that there are no indications that a mass exodus is imminent.
Meanwhile, more than 4,500 U.S. citizens who had been living or working in Haiti and Haitian orphans whose adoptions were in the works have been processed through Florida since the earthquake hit the country a week ago, according to George Sheldon, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Nearly 150 were being treated at Florida hospitals.
Many have been given temporary lodging, medical attention, food stamps, cell phones and, for the children, teddy bears as they continue on their way to meet families in other parts of the country, Sheldon said.
Sheldon said 54 Haitian children arrived Monday night and were forwarded on Tuesday morning to adoptive families waiting in Pennsylvania. He said the state would continue to assist federal efforts targeting orphans of the disaster.
David Halstead, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said the state is assisting federal authorities by providing aid to Americans returning from Haiti, often with nothing but the clothes on their back. The state expects to spend more than $6 million over the next two weeks to repatriate some of the 45,000 U.S. citizens estimated to have been in Haiti prior to the quake.
Beyond that, Halstead said Haitian nationals attempting to reach the U.S. are to be interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and sent to Guantanamo Bay, which could handle up to 10,000 refugees.
“If suddenly there were thousands on our shore, we would (humanely) take care of them until they were resettled back in their home” Halstead said.
But Halstead stressed that aerial photographs and other intelligence indicate that a mass move is not in the works.
“That (rumor) has been thrown around,” Halstead said. “It is absolutely not happening.”
Official U.S. policy is to convince would-be immigrants to stay put and send boaters back. The strategy, known as Operation Vigilant Sentry, is to use highly publicized interdictions to deter immigrants from what can be a dangerous voyage while sending a message to smugglers that their lucrative cargoes, as well as their vessels, may not make it to shore.
Under the plan, Coast Guard vessels, aircraft and crew from all along the US Atlantic Coast, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean would be available to form a perimeter in international waters. Additional support would come from US Customs officers, and federal immigration and Border Patrol personnel.