Sale v. Haitian Centers Council

The Sale decision allowed the U.S. government to capture fleeing Haitian refugees before they reached the shores of the United States and to return them to Haiti, where they possibly faced political persecution.

During the early 1990’s, political instability and poverty caused large numbers of Haitians to attempt to flee to the United States in makeshift boats. In response, both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations pursued a policy of intercepting the refugees at sea and returning them to Haiti. In 1992, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that the policy violated the [a]Refugee Act of 1980;and Haitians[Haitians]Refugee Act of 1980 and the [a]Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, U.N.United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Before the Supreme Court, the government defended the policy as necessary to prevent a “humanitarian tragedy at sea,” which would result from tens of thousands of Haitians drowning in boats that were not seaworthy.[c]Sale v. Haitian Centers CouncilHaitian immigrants;Sale v. Haitian Centers Council[c]Sale v. Haitian Centers CouncilHaitian immigrants;Sale v. Haitian Centers
[cat]COURT CASES;Sale v. Haitian Centers Council[cat]REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS;Sale v. Haitian Centers Council

The Supreme Court upheld the government’s policy by an 8-1 margin. Writing for the majority, Justice Stevens, John PaulJohn Paul Stevens concluded that the treaty could not be read to say anything about “a nation’s actions toward aliens outside its own territory,” even though the policy possibly violated the “spirit” of the treaty. Regarding the federal law, moreover, there was “not a scintilla of evidence” that Congress had intended to protect refugees beyond the national borders. Stevens also mentioned that a U.S.-Haitian treaty of 1981 authorized the Coast Guard, U.S.;and Haitian boat people[Haitian boat people]U.S. Coast Guard to intercept vessels engaged in illegal transportation of undocumented aliens. In a strong dissent, Justice Blackmun, Harry A.Harry A. Blackmun asserted that the 1980 law prohibited the government from returning refugees to their persecutors, whether or not they were on American soil.[c]Sale v. Haitian Centers CouncilHaitian immigrants;Sale v. Haitian Centers Council

Further Reading

  • Legomsky, Stephen. Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy. New York: Foundation Press, 2005.
  • Loescher, Gil, and John Scanlan. Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door. New York: Free Press, 1986.

Congress, U.S.

Haitian boat people

Haitian immigrants

Immigration law


Supreme Court, U.S.