AS/COA Online | The Haitian Migration Debate

As refugees flee a ruined Port-au-Prince in droves, the question of how to carve out a policy for Haitian migration looms. Days after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian nationals who arrived in the United States prior to January 12. In the wake of the disaster, U.S. officials warned now-homeless Haitians against building makeshift boats and heading for Florida’s coastline. But, before a January 25 Haiti rebuilding conference in Montreal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that the Obama administration is “looking at” legal immigration as a means to ease the crisis.

Roughly 535,000 Haitians live in the United States, making it home to the largest number of Haitians outside the country. The current figure represents a quadrupling since 1980, with a sharp rise beginning after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship. A Migration Policy Institute analysis reports that a large majority of Haitian immigrants are legal permanent residents. The January 15 decision to extend TPS offers all Haitians who arrived before the earthquake an 18-month visa to live and work in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also halted deportations in progress.

A few days later, DHS granted “humanitarian parole” to some Haitian orphans, allowing dozens to enter the country under emergency conditions and for medical care. Some 500 orphans have been given travel documents, but only children with the appropriate paperwork issued by the Haitian government can gain adoption. This week, Haiti temporarily stopped sending orphans abroad over concerns that parents and children were separated during the quake and to ensure the legitimacy of adoptions.

But beyond current Haitian immigrants and adoption cases, debate grows over whether the United States should take additional steps to relax immigration rules for Haitians. Thousands of Haitians with family members in the United States remain in a visa holding pattern that predates the earthquake. The Washington Post reports that 55,000 Haitians have gained family visas but find themselves on waiting lists because of congressional limits on how many can enter the United States on an annual basis.

During a January 25 press conference, Secretary Clinton responded to a question about whether Washington would consider easing immigration rules for Haitians. Her answer, for now, was indefinite: “[w]e are certainly looking at that and will have more to say later.” A January 23/24 Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans are opposed to accepting more Haitian refugees into the United States. But an editorial in The Baltimore Sun’s Second Opinion blog points out that refugees can support recovery efforts through remittances and poses a question: “If the United States turns its back on victims at our doorstep, if we reflexively refuse them because immigration is too difficult a subject in an election year, what does that say about us?”

Roughly 690,000 Port-au-Prince residents are now homeless and in makeshift camps. Aid groups worry over securing shelter for them before the country’s rainy season begins in April.

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