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Freed Haitians coming to U.S.

Kesner Celormy arrived in Tampa and slept in a regular bed Monday night for the first time in 14 months.

That's how long he had lived at a temporary camp for Haitian refugees in Cuba, a compound encircled by razor wire and guarded by American soldiers.

Celormy is one of 142 Haitians detained at the camp on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay.Some have been there for as long as 20 months, held because they are HIV-positive or closely related to someone who tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS.

On Monday 27 of the Haitians, including three children, were brought to Florida on a C130 military plane. A U.S. federal judge last week ordered the refugees released and said they could not be sent back to Haiti.

All the Haitians will be brought to the United States in the next 10 days.

The Haitians' positive HIV tests kept them out of the United States until now because the United States bans HIV-positive foreigners from immigrating. The Haitians could not be legally sent back to Haiti because American immigration officials already had decided that they had legitimate fears of political persecution. That kept them in legal limbo for more than a year, until federal District Judge Sterling Johnson last week ordered the government to release them.

Most of the arrivals from Guantanamo have family in the United States, with whom they will live. Church World Service and the U.S. Catholic Conference will help the new arrivals in South Florida, and Haitians who traveled to New York and Boston on Monday will be received by a variety of social agencies.

Raul Hernandez of the U.S. Catholic Conference in Miami, which received four of the 27 Haitians arriving Monday, said each would be given $200 as well as HIV education, help in applying for political asylum and English classes. Twelve of the 27 planned to stay in Florida and 13 were bound for New York.

The refugees carried their scant possessions in U.S. military duffel bags Monday and avoided talking to reporters. Most of the Haitians' reunions with their families took place in private.

Answering questions about the cost of caring for HIV-infected immigrants, Mike Wishnie, a young lawyer who helped to sue the U.S. government on behalf of the Haitians, said Monday, "There's no more expensive way to take care of these people than to keep them at Guantanamo," where a force of 350 soldiers ran the camp and military doctors treated the Haitians. "It will save the taxpayers money (to allow) people to join their families," said Wishnie, who works for Yale Law School's Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic.

The cost of AIDS treatment for the Haitians, he said, would be largely absorbed by social services agencies for which 100-odd more cases will be a drop in the bucket. "There are 1.5-million HIV-positive or AIDS patients in this country," he said.

All the Haitians were brought to the United States because they were deemed to have legitimate fears of political persecution in Haiti. Now that they are here, they are free to seek full-fledged political asylum and work here. Eventually, the Immigration and Naturalization Service must decide whether to grant them asylum or deport them, but the process is long and may be irrelevant to people who are already threatened by a fatal disease.

The 142 Haitians are the very last members of a massive wave of Haitian boat people that started in late 1991, after Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown and severe political violence broke out. Nearly 40,000 Haitians tried to leave on boats.

The Guantanamo camp was first set up a month after the September 1991 coup, so U.S. authorities could decide which Haitians to admit without allowing them all onto U.S. soil, which would entitle them to a hearing before deportation. At its height, the Guantanamo camp had more than 20,000 people sleeping in military tents on folding cots, on a vast, hot field.

To prevent more boat people from leaving, the U.S. Coast Guard set up a large flotilla of boats and planes off the coast of Haiti on January 15, amid rumors of a large exodus. Since then the number of people caught by the Coast Guard attempting to sail to Florida has dropped to fewer than a dozen a month.

More than 10,000 Haitian boat people were admitted into the United States during the last two years, and twice that number were sent back to Haiti. By last summer, the Guantanamo camp had only about 300 people _ all HIV-positive or family members who did not want to leave their HIV-positive relatives.

Most of those people have already been brought to this country. In September, Siliese Success, a young woman who had just given birth to her first child, was allowed to leave the camp because the child was ill with pneumonia. Her husband, also held at Guantanamo, was not permitted to accompany her. The baby died shortly after she arrived.

Over the ensuing months, some of the Haitians were allowed into the United States either because they had AIDS and were too sick to be properly treated at the camp, or because they were women in the last trimester of pregnancy. In April, Judge Johnson ordered the sickest Haitians be released from Guantanamo, and about 50 more left. One man died only a few weeks after arriving in Miami.

As they waited at Guantanamo, the remaining Haitians grew impatient and declared several hunger strikes, trying to force the U.S. government to reach a decision. Even as they arrived Monday, they said they were glad to be away from Guantanamo at last but exhausted with the long wait.