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Red Tape Ties Up Scores of Miami Students in Haiti

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After being entangled in American red tape in their native Haiti for nearly six months, 13-year-old Edlaure Jean-Baptiste and her 9-year-old sister, Stephanie, returned to Miami just over a month ago and were swaddled in hugs from their parents and teachers.

The girls, both Dade County public school students, had been required under U.S. immigration law to return to their homeland for processing by the American embassy there. Scores of other Haitian-born youngsters from the Miami area remain stranded in Haiti awaiting such processing.

As tensions in the island nation have become more intense in recent weeks, so have the fears of educators and community leaders in Miami over the plight of these children.

While a solid count of youngsters caught in this predicament is not available, the Dade County school district and community groups offer estimates that range from 60 to 150.

The district, which has some 7,000 Haitian-born children among its more than 300,000 students, does not keep track of which students are missing from which schools. And many school officials whose students have already returned from Haiti assumed they were isolated cases.

Parents Had Received Amnesty

The children were summoned by the embassy in Port-au-Prince to get documents allowing them to live and work legally in the United States.

Their parents are legal U.S. residents, granted their status under a 1986 law that gave amnesty to illegal immigrants who had resided in the United States before 1982. If such immigrants' children were not born here, however, they are not automatically granted residency.

Thus, the Haitian-born children--like those of other nationalities in the same situation--have returned to their native country for interviews and paperwork leading to an immigrant visa. That process often takes months to complete.

A spokesman for the assistant U.S. secretary of state for consular affairs said last week that the Haitian children are not being detained unnecessarily, but that there are many questions about the authenticity of their application documents. The Port-au-Prince office has a big backlog in visa cases because it was closed for a full year after the 1991 military coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

U.S. Navy ships last week began enforcing an embargo against Haiti that is intended to help force the restoration of Mr. Aristide to power.

Some Haitian-born children who have had to return to their homeland have relatives there, but others are forced to stay with strangers, said Cheryl A.E. Little, a lawyer for Florida Rural Legal Services Inc.

Edlaure and Stephanie stayed with their godmother in Port-au-Prince. Edlaure, who attends the mathematics and science magnet program at Dade County's Ruben Dario Middle School, said last week that she was afraid she would fall behind in her schoolwork and had taken her math and science books with her to Haiti.

She and her sister were promoted to the next grade in spite of their lost time at school because they are exceptional students, the principals of their schools said. Both girls are getting extra help from teachers.

'Waiting Around Was Scary''

But the memories of violence in Haiti persist for Edlaure, who recalled pushing mattresses and tables up against the front door to prevent roaming burglars from breaking in.

"Waiting around was scary, because sometimes at night they'd shoot, and we didn't always have electricity,'' Edlaure recounted.

As is the case with many such children, educators at the girls' schools did not realize where they were until Edlaure wrote to her former 4th-grade teacher asking her for help. The girls' parents were called, numerous letters were written to state and federal officials, and the girls were returned under "humanitarian parole,'' which the Immigration and Naturalization Service can grant in individual cases.

They now have up to one year in the United States to get their visas.

Dozens of Miami-area children like them have returned from Haiti in the past few months.

Many Dade County principals said they had noticed Haitian children missing from classes, but were not sure where they were.

For example, Marjaree R. Raiford, the principal of Little River Elementary School, said she knows of at least one Haitian student who has been absent for months, but she has been unable to find out whether the girl is in Port-au-Prince.

One obstacle to identifying these students is that parents are reluctant to come forward for fear of jeopardizing the children's processing, said Frederica S. Wilson, a member of the Dade County school board.

School officials expressed frustration at their inability to do more.

"It's important for us as a district to get our children back, especially now, but we're not sitting in a situation where we can dictate policy,'' said Henry C. Fraind, an assistant superintendent in Dade County.

U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Fla., plans to introduce legislation that would allow Haitian children to be processed in the United States for the next 18 months.

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