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Debate grows in aftermath of quake: Should U.S. let more Haitians immigrate?

By Amy Goldstein and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010; A01

From morning until night, Dieula Celestin's cellphone rings in Miami's Little Haiti. It is her younger brother, Roger Paul, calling from Port-au-Prince, where he and their 65-year-old mother live with no food, no job and no money in the street outside the remnants of their house.

Celestin knows that federal immigration rules forbid her brother, her mother and half a dozen other people in her family who survived the earthquake -- as eight others died -- to enter the United States. Still, she flew to Haiti late Saturday, hoping that somehow she could find a way to bring them back.

Now that the earthquake's initial shock is giving way to the realities of trying to cope in the ruins, a growing number of Haitians -- and their relatives in the United States -- are starting to chafe under the Obama administration's edict to resist, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has put it, "an impulse to leave the island and to come here."

The tension between U.S. policy and the desperation to leave 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.

Late last week, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Homeland Security officials had told him the agency would grant "humanitarian parole" to about 200 severely injured Haitian children. Even after that, Nelson said, he got a late-night e-mail, with the subject line "HELP," from a Miami neurosurgeon doing relief work, saying the U.S. Embassy in Haiti would not allow three critically burned children to be flown to a Miami burn unit. Nelson also said the State Department had issued a memo saying that a 17-year-old named Samantha, with a broken back and a father in Michigan, "would be ineligible to board an aircraft to the United States."

"Typical bureaucratic crap that needs to be cut through," Nelson said in an interview.

While Nelson 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.

Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said that letting Haitians join U.S. relatives would relieve at least some of the humanitarian burden in Port-au-Prince. The United States, she said, has airlifted foreigners out of other emergencies, such as Albanians from Kosovo and refugees from the Vietnam War.

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.

Among Haitians and their U.S. relatives, Limon predicted, pressure on U.S. immigration policy will escalate in the coming weeks and months. "You need a boat, a captain, money. Nobody has that," she said. "But in two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, they will."

In Little Haiti, the first stirrings are already visible. "How can anyone watch someone who has . . . no food, and they're just lying in the street covering themselves with a box, and then say, 'No more immigration'? How is that humane?" said Tchelsie Lafond, 20, whose uncle crawled out of the rubble of the bank in which he worked and, with his wife, now wants to come to the United States.

Meanwhile, Celestin, a 49-year-old restaurant worker and U.S. citizen, was so frustrated listening to her brother plead for her to help family members reach Miami that she accepted a one-way plane ticket from her church and flew to Haiti with a small delegation of parishioners Saturday night. She has no idea how she will afford to get home.

Still, Celestin said, she hopes to find her way to the U.S. Embassy in the shattered capital and beg someone to let her relatives go back with her. "In Haiti, they have nothing at all," she said. "In the U.S., people can help them out."

Goldstein reported from Washington, Whoriskey from Miami.

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