Debate Grows in Aftermath of Quake: Should U.S. Let More Haitians Immigrate?

Amy Goldstein and Peter Whoriskey, Washington Post, January 25, 2010

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The tension between U.S. policy and the desperation to leave [Haiti] is spawning a debate in Washington over whether the government should let more Haitians in. Immigration advocates and several members of Congress have begun pressing the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department to ease the rules. So far, the focus is on two groups: Haitians with relatives legally in the United States and a few hundred injured children who, in the judgment of doctors doing relief work in Haiti, could die without sophisticated medical care.

In the first days after the Jan. 12 quake, Napolitano announced that the government would admit Haitian children already on the cusp of adoption and that it would allow Haitians who were in the United States illegally to stay for 18 months. The administration has not eased restrictions for children newly orphaned or injured by the disaster, Haitians who had already been seeking U.S. visas, or any other earthquake victims who want to come.

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While Nelson [Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)] wants to admit only critically injured children for treatment, a groundswell is building in favor of letting certain Haitians emigrate. Advocates’ immediate focus is Haitians who, before the disaster, had applied–and in some cases been approved–for a kind of visa available to foreign relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents.

About 19,000 Haitians have pending applications for such visas, according to DHS. Nearly 55,000 Haitians have been approved for family visas but are on waiting lists to enter because Congress has set limits on how many may come each year, the State Department says. Given the quotas, “it can take years and years for families to be reunited,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

A spokesman for Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency would “put at the head of the line” applicants for relative visas from Haiti. But he and a State Department spokeswoman acknowledged that quicker visa approvals would not mean those Haitians could enter the United States more quickly unless Congress alters the quotas–something lawmakers are not discussing.

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Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors tighter controls on immigration, countered that “poverty and underdevelopment can’t be criteria we use to pick immigrants. There are too many of them.” And he said that Haitian earthquake victims could consume U.S. social services and displace American workers–without generating enough income to send back to Haiti “to make a difference” there.

Still, Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that if the United States doubled for the next five years the 25,000 Haitians who have been coming to the United States annually, it would substantially increase the remittances sent back, providing critical help as the nation tries to rebuild. Such help streaming home to families is more reliable and more likely to be spent efficiently than the ebb and flow of foreign aid, he said. Abrams suggested that to satisfy critics of increased immigration, the United States could offset the influx of Haitians by temporarily slowing immigration from elsewhere.

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