By: Mark Hetfield, HIAS Senior Vice President for Policy and Programs
Haiti -- a beautiful country, people and culture -- was no stranger to tragedy, even before the earthquake of 2010. In the years since I left Haiti in 1994, prolonged episodes of political strife have been coupled with eight natural disasters, with massive property damage and loss of life.
These political and natural catastrophes pushed tens of thousands of Haitians to escape to the United States by any means -- legal or otherwise. And the United States has long taken extraordinary means -- themselves of dubious legality under international law -- to stem such migration. Not the least among these is the "shout test" -- the U.S. policy to return all Haitian boat migrants without any asylum screening whatsoever, except those who physically or verbally resist the Coast Guard's efforts to return them.
Yet Haiti's history of natural and man-made disasters seem trivial in relation to the devastation of January 12. More than 150,000 are dead. The already devastated Haitian economy suffered untold billions of dollars in damage. Haitians have fled the country under far less dire circumstances. I will never forget the July 4 I spent in Haiti as a U.S. Immigration Officer in 1994 -- when 3247 Haitian boat migrants were interdicted by the Coast Guard in a single day.
Of course, even if aid pours into Haiti and the U.S. Coast Guard does its best to seal the Haitian coast, thousands are still likely to flee the devastation in the coming months.
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have already made heroic efforts to rush to the assistance of the Haitian people. They authorized temporary protected status (TPS) for the tens of thousands of undocumented Haitians already in the United States. TPS will give these Haitians 18 months of employment authorization and a reprieve from being forcibly returned to their devastated homeland. Secretary Napolitano is exercising her parole authority to bring in Haitian orphans who were in the process of being adopted by U.S. families, as well as medical evacuees. And USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas is expediting immigration and naturalization applications from those of Haitian nationality.
While welcome, these actions will not be enough to act as the migration safety valve that Haiti now needs to rise from the rubble. The Obama Administration, Secretary Napolitano and the Congress should take the following steps without delay:
Apply Humanitarian Parole for Haitians with Pending Family Applications
Humanitarian parole is used sparingly to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency. There are currently more than 50,000 people who have approved family petitions to reunite with family in the U.S. but who are waiting in Haiti for a visa number. Secretary Napolitano should exercise humanitarian parole authority to allow at least those from earthquake-devastated areas of Haiti to wait in the United States with their U.S. family pending the availability of visas.
Create a "Golden Door" Visa
While the U.S. currently offers a diversity lottery for 50,000 people annually from underrepresented countries, the diversity lottery requires a high school education and is closed to residents of Haiti. Congress should enact what Elliott Abrams recently called a "Golden Door Visa" to allow Haitians admission to the United States. This policy would help develop the economy of Haiti by creating a strong diaspora of people who could send remittances back to Haiti, while decreasing domestic pressures the Haitian government is facing by so many individuals in dire need. When faced with a massive boat migration from Cuba in 1994, the United States addressed it by launching an effective program -- partly fulfilled through a visa lottery -- issuing 20,000 visas per year to Cubans. A similar strategy should be employed for Haiti. The Departments of State and Homeland Security could activate its existing network of voluntary refugee resettlement agencies throughout the United States -- including the HIAS network -- to assist with the resettlement of impacted Haitians.
Stop the "Shout Test"
The Shout Test currently applied to Haitians by DHS can't pass the laugh test under international law. Adding insult to injury, DHS provides both Cubans and Chinese boat migrants with more meaningful screenings. At a minimum, the Obama Administration should not return Haitian boat migrants without first affording them access to a Creole interpreter. The interpreter should read a statement to returnees informing them that if they have any fear of return they should step forward to request protection through a confidential interview with a competent U.S. official.
We can assume that the majority of Haitian migrants are not fleeing persecution, and therefore are not eligible for asylum or refugee status. However, given the State Department's own human rights reports on Haiti and the fact that more than one in five Haitian asylum applicants in the United States are found to be eligible for asylum, it is unacceptable to presume that Haitian boats are void of asylum-seekers. Such a presumption not only discriminates against Haitians, but sets a bad example for the many other countries which look to the lead of the United States on issues of refugee protection.
International aid is needed, but it is not enough. The migration pressures on Haitians should not be ignored.