Officials ready, alert to Haitian refugee potential

By Dianna Smith

Local officials are continuing to comb the seas and beaches for Haitians fleeing their devastated country.

Though no refugees have been spotted in Palm Beach County since January’s deadly earthquake in Haiti, four Haitian nationals came ashore in nearby Martin County
on Feb. 22, reminding locals to keep an eye out for any kind of suspicious
activity on the beaches.

“They don’t stop, they really don’t stop,” said Ed Greenfield, public affairs officer for the U.S. Coast Guard Lake Worth.

For years, political uprising and an unstable economy has pushed Haitians to travel the rough seas to South Florida, in search of better lives. But many worry the
earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and left many more homeless may
lure even more Haitians to flee in the weeks to come.

The Palm Beach County Emergency Management Center has reminded local officials of the mass migration plan that was updated just two years ago.

And the United States Coast Guard has various ships and aircrafts patrolling the seas.

On Feb. 16, the coast guard intercepted a boat with 88 Haitians just 45 miles north of Haiti. All 88 were returned to Haiti. That was the first group of
Haitians spotted in the waters since the earthquake, said Coast Guard Petty
Officer Barry Bena.

“We always have a presence to deter illegal migration,” Bena said.

Soon after the earthquake, Haitians in the United States were given the opportunity to apply for temporary protected status, which will allow the undocumented to
stay in the states and work until July 2011. Of the more than 37,000 Haitians
who have applied for TPS so far, 25,000 have been from Florida alone.

But those Haitians who arrive illegally in the United States after Jan. 12 do not quality for TPS and will be sent back to Haiti.

Though Matt Chandler, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said officials do not see signs of a pending mass migration, a few
hundred detainees were moved from the Krome detention center in Miami-Dade County in January to make
room for a potential influx of Haitian refugees. The center is a place where immigrants wait for their
immigration status or to be returned to their country.

Chandler called the move “simply an act of cautionary planning.”

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