The Coast Guard said Thursday it has intercepted more than 500 Haitians on about a dozen vessels over the past three or four days as Haiti descends deeper into chaos.
The announcement came a day after President Bush repeated that it is U.S. policy to turn back any Haitian refugees caught trying to reach American shores.
Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz said 546 Haitians have been brought onto Coast Guard cutters at sea and are receiving food and water.
Authorities Thursday interviewed 21 Haitians from one boat intercepted offshore Wednesday. They were trying to determine whether the vessel was hijacked and the migrants should be returned to their homeland.
The small freighter carrying the Haitians and seven Filipino crew members was intercepted about seven miles off Miami Beach.
Since an armed revolt against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide flared in Haiti on Feb. 5, the Coast Guard has been monitoring the Windward Pass, the stretch of sea northwest of Haiti where boat people would start out on the 600-mile journey toward Florida, but up until now the agency had not reported an unusual number of migrants.
The United States has been anxious to prevent a repeat of the exodus of the early 1990s, when tens of thousands of Haitians fleeing political turmoil set out in boats to try to reach Florida.
Aristide warned earlier this week that a further advance by the rebels, who control a large part of the north of the country, could trigger an exodus of boat people.
An unstated concern of the Bush administration is to avoid the Haiti turmoil spilling over into a migrant crisis in Florida just months before Bush runs for re-election in November.
The president won the state by a razor-thin margin in 2000.
Bush’s younger brother, Jeb Bush, is Florida’s governor and he described Wednesday’s incident off Miami as a hijacking.
“They should be sent back to Haiti. They hijacked a boat,” Jeb Bush. “Unless they have a well-founded fear of persecution that is specific and meets the criteria of our laws, they should be sent back.”
But Kendrick Meek, a U.S. congressman from south Florida whose district includes many Haitian Americans, protested the policy of sending Haitians back automatically.
Haitians caught at sea should be interviewed to determine if they have a credible fear of persecution and if they do, should be allowed to apply for political asylum, he said.