Facebook Twitter

REFUGEE LEVEL FROM HAITI AT A HIGH POINT

SHARE REFUGEE LEVEL FROM HAITI AT A HIGH POINT

The tide of Haitian boat people surged to its highest level in more than a year on Monday as the Coast Guard picked up more than 1,000 people on the high seas who were seeking to seize the opportunity the Clinton administration has given them to apply for refugee status.

The flood is swamping the bureaucracy that the administration set up to accommodate Haitians who hope to be granted such status.Monday's interdictions bring the number of Haitians intercepted since Friday to more than 1,800. That means more Haitians have been picked up in the past four days in their flimsy boats and rafts than in the first four months of this year combined.

The surge is alarming American officials, who fear that the 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship they are using to process Haitian boat people off the Jamaica coast will be overwhelmed. They also fear that the larger number of Haitians granted refugee status will create political and economic strains in Florida and other states at a time when immigrants are becoming a major campaign issue.

"The numbers are reaching a level that they have to be a concern," said Duke Austin, spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "If they continue to increase, it's going to strain our ability to handle them."

One official said he expected that the administration would soon be forced to use Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to process Haitians as a result of the surge in boat people. But officials said their ability to handle the flood of Haitians would improve when they open an interviewing center in the Turks and Caicos Islands in mid-July.

Administration officials are uncertain about why the number of Haitian boat people has exploded. The most important factor, they say, is that word has filtered back to Haiti that the United States is granting refugee status to a far higher percentage of Haitians.