The U.S. should welcome Haitians in

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Friday, January 29, 2010

THE UNITED STATES has reacted swiftly and generously to Haiti's calamity, both with a colossal charitable response from individuals, enterprises and organizations and with a substantial commitment of troops, money, medical help and high-level attention from the government. But the Obama administration can and should do more, and quickly, to ease the vast burden of relief and rebuilding and to channel cash to Haitian families in dire need.

Specifically -- and at a minimum -- it could accomplish those goals by allowing Haitians with relatives in the United States to join their families here as quickly as practicable. Instead, it has imposed what amounts to a freeze in issuing visas to Haitians, thereby keeping them bottled up in one of the world's most destitute and devastated places. This is counterproductive in the extreme and will only increase the risk of boat people heading toward American shores.

The U.S. government already has approved the visa petitions of some 55,000 Haitians whose family members are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, but they face long waits to enter the country because of annual limits set by Congress. For Haitians, as for other nationalities, the waiting list is daunting. The adult children of U.S. citizens must wait six years to immigrate if they're single and nine years if they're married; siblings of citizens face an 11-year wait; even for spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents who hold green cards, the wait is about four years.

Most Haitians on these waiting lists, plus 19,000 who have applications in the pipeline, are going to wind up in the United States eventually. Speeding their resettlement here -- perhaps in monthly airlifts of 5,000 or 10,000 -- would help in critical ways. First, it would reduce the overwhelming numbers of destitute Haitians who will need to be housed, fed and cared for, in many cases by U.S. and international groups operating in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere. Second, it would provide an orderly procedure to relieve the pressure building in a country where almost no one currently has a means of exit. Keeping people bottled up in a place as wrecked as Haiti is a sure-fire way to make desperate people more desperate; it raises the risk of violence, instability and chaotic exodus. Third, it would increase the pool of Haitians working in the United States who, even before the quake, provided an estimated one-third of Haiti's gross domestic product by sending cash remittances to their families.

These cash transfers in particular are a crucial lifeline for millions of Haitians. There's no more efficient way to get money into the pockets of Haitians who now lack work, shelter and other basic provisions. It's been estimated that a Haitian working in the United States can support as many as 10 relatives at home, and many do.

The administration can speed the entry of Haitians -- it needs no congressional approval -- and there's ample precedent for taking such measures to admit people facing unusual hardship. In the 1960s and again in the Mariel boatlift of 1980, the United States admitted a total of more than 350,000 Cubans fleeting Fidel Castro's regime. It resettled tens of thousands of refugees following the war in Vietnam and thousands of Kosovar Albanians during the Balkan wars. And with a half-million Haitians already in the United States -- not only in South Florida but also in New York, Boston and elsewhere -- a receiving community is in place that could help acclimate the new immigrants. No doubt, an influx of Haitians would put a burden on schools and other local services, but it is a burden the United States has shouldered in the past in the face of emergency and extreme hardship. And America should not bear the burden alone. Canada, France and other nations with historic and cultural ties to Haiti should follow suit.

The administration has allowed undocumented Haitians already in this country to stay for 18 months and apply for work permits, and it brought some orphans and badly injured victims of the quake to American shores. But it has balked at doing more, even for some Haitians with close ties to American citizens. Having declared that the extraordinary suffering in Haiti demands an extraordinary American response, the Obama administration now must fashion policies that fit that principle. And the time to do so is now.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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