The treatment of Haitians represents a continuing bias in U.S. policy toward refugees, especially in contrast to the way their Cubans counterparts are handled. The Coast Guard has attempted to intercept boats before they left Haitian waters; a disproportionate number of undocumented Haitians who made it to U.S. shores were incarcerated; and requests for political asylum have been met with the highest rejection rate of any national group.
Repeatedly, local South Florida and national officials have identified Haitians as a health threat: in the 1970s, tuberculosis was allegedly endemic among them. In the early 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control identified Haitians as one of the primary groups at risk for AIDS. In spite of their removal from that list, the Food and Drug Administration in the late 1980s refused to accept the donation of blood from individuals of Haitian origin.
When Congress passed an immigration law that permitted many Central Americans to obtain legal immigration status, Haitians were left out. Later, when a law was passed specifically for Haitians, the INS delayed issuing regulations on who could qualify.
When Haitians began landing in South Florida with stories of political repression and were then denied refugee status, their plight became a public issue, especially when contrasted to the very favorable treatment of the Cubans. Although some Cubans espoused the Haitians' cause, most remained silent. African Americans were, and remain, the only ethnic group to consistently support the rights of Haitians coming to Miami.
Haitian advocates did, however, gain some short-term benefits for limited numbers of people. In 1980, Haitians who arrived before October 10 of that year were granted the same terms as Cubans who had come to the United States before that date. After that, newly arrived Cubans retained their privileges, while Haitians faced renewed discrimination.
In 1982 a U.S. federal court ordered the release of a group of Haitian refugees who had been detained by the INS. Later arrivals, however, were detained and not released. In 1994 Haitians were detained in Guantanamo Naval Base and seldom turned over to relatives in the U.S., while Cuban detainees were almost always released. In 2002 Haitian refugees who had a credible fear of persecution if returned to their homeland were not released on parole, although this was standard practice for other nationalities.