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Boatload of Haitians swarms ashore in Florida

A Miami-Dade police officer watches over Haitian refugees on the shoulder of the highway.
A Miami-Dade police officer watches over Haitian refugees on the shoulder of the highway.

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More than 200 Haitians jumped from a boat near Key Biscayne, Florida, swimming to shore and swarming the highway leading into Miami. CNN's Mark Potter reports (October 30)
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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- More than 200 Haitians -- including many children -- jumped from a 50-foot wooden boat near Key Biscayne Tuesday afternoon, swimming to shore and swarming the highway leading into Miami.

Video from local news outlets showed people jumping into the water and swimming or wading to the beach. The Coast Guard said the boat ran aground.

Many of the Haitians ran onto the Rickenbacker Causeway, which leads to Miami. Several jumped in the back of a black pickup truck and others appeared to try to get rides from motorists on the bridge.

Local police rounded up dozens of the Haitians, seating them on the side of the highway. One man was wrestled to the ground by authorities and handcuffed.

Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney and one of the lawyers for Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, told CNN that by reaching U.S. soil, at least the Haitians could apply for political asylum. If they're intercepted while still on the open sea, they are sent back immediately.

However, he said most of the people who left that boat would most likely be sent back to Haiti because they immigrated for economic reasons.

"The great likelihood is that they will not be permitted to stay unless they can show a well-founded fear of persecution," he said.

A Coast Guard vessel called in a report about the vessel before it ran aground near the beach, said Luis Diaz, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami.

"There were so many of them and a large portion were already on the beach," Diaz said. "We're just making sure no one drowns."

The Coast Guard picked up 21 people in the water, including three who were slightly injured. Coast Guard officials said there were no reports of deaths among the migrants.

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Haitians run across the highway, stopping traffic.

Miami police said 206 Haitians were on the boat.

Once they were seated on the side of the road, the migrants were put in flexi-cuffs -- plastic bands used as handcuffs. They were then put on prison buses and taken to the Krome Detention Center for processing, where they'll likely be questioned about how they came to the United States. Officials want to know if it was through a smuggler.

Gov. Jeb Bush said in a statement he has contacted the White House about the arrival of the Haitians,

"I have been assured that these individuals will receive fair and decent treatment by federal authorities," his statement said.

"While immigration is the core of our state's rich diversity, I remain concerned about the continuing issue of immigration enforcement, as well as the well-being and safety of those who attempt this dangerous activity," the governor said.

An official from the Immigration and Naturalization Services said the Haitians are in INS custody.

Detective Delrish Moss of the Miami Police department said a triage center had been set up on the causeway.

"Many of them have been on the water for several days and some are dehydrated," he said.

Although many Haitians were stopped before they got across the bridge, some got away.

"Our big concern is that some people may have left the causeway in cars. People feel sorry for them and pick them up," Moss said.

Jennifer Miller, a Cuban-American who witnessed the exodus from the boat, said it was sad.

"People started running up over the bridge, jumping on cars. They were jumping on rocks on the shore, hurting themselves and bleeding," she said.

If the estimate of 206 people on board the boat is accurate, it would be the largest single crossing of Haitian migrants to the United States in nearly three years.

"The passion of so many people from so many countries to come to this country... the aspirations of a better life, keeps so many trying," Coffey said.

Some of the Haitians interviewed by a local television station said they couldn't take another day in Haiti.

According to the State Department's Web site, some 16,000 Haitians receive visas to immigrate to the United States each year.

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Miami police said 206 Haitians were on the boat.

Unlike Cubans, who are automatically granted asylum if they reach U.S. soil in what's called a "wet foot, dry foot" policy, most Haitian migrants do not qualify for political asylum.

Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the greater-Miami American Civil Liberties Union, said that policy is unfair.

"We need to look at the cause of why these people are coming to shore like this and running away," she said. "What you're seeing is the result of a very misguided policy."

A 1991 coup in Haiti sparked a large exodus from the country, and 67,000 migrants were intercepted and returned to the country. The Coast Guard processed their claims first on ships, and then at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At one point, the camp there housed more than 12,000 Haitians.

-- CNN Correspondent Mark Potter contributed to this report.



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