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Congress was wrong last year to make Haitians second-class refugees when it refused to include them in a list of foreigners exempted from tough new deportation laws.

Now lawmakers will have a chance to reconsider, at no peril to the affected Haitians, thanks to President Clinton's issuance this week of a directive that delays any such deportations for up to a year.

The presidential directive puts Haitian refugees on a par with those from other war-torn nations, like Nicaragua and El Salvador, who were exempted from a stern 1996 immigration reform law because they'd fled civil wars.

But Congress turned a deaf ear to pleas for similar treatment for Haitians, who also fled a brutal dictatorship that took over and instituted a reign of terror in 1991.

That regime remained in power for three years, murdering and torturing Haitians in a coup so bloody that a U.S. intervention force had to restore the democratically elected government in 1994. Many Haitians fled for their lives in the interval, coming here in ships and rafts, just as refugees from other war-ravaged areas did. Now they deserve to have their cases treated the same as those of other refugees.

But even more important than the fate of the 20,000 to 40,000 Haitians who might be covered under the directive is the fate of the country itself.

The peace in Haiti remains fragile. U.S and U.N. forces gave democracy a chance to take hold, but Haiti's politicians have been disappointingly slow to grasp it. The government has been paralyzed by internal divisions and indecision. The police force has yet to be fully trained by international experts. Many of those responsible for atrocities remain in Haiti, despite the forced departure of the coup leaders. And the U.N. peacekeeping force pulled out earlier this month.

Sending thousands of refugees back into such an atmosphere could be more than Haiti could stand right now. It could wreck all that has been accomplished and derail any hopes for permanent, democratic stability there.

Clinton was right to act, both for the refugees and for the tiny nation. In addition, his one-year reprieve gives Congress time to rethink its discriminatory treatment of Haitian refugees and a chance to permanently remedy a legislative wrong.

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