Silence on Haiti

Sunday, January 9, 2011

AYEAR AFTER it was leveled by an earthquake, Haiti remains, in many ways, a feeble ward of the international community. Rubble from the quake clogs much of the capital of Port-au-Prince; 1 million people are still living in tents; and Haiti's economy, fragile to begin with, is mostly supine. In the past few months, things have been made even worse by bitterly disputed and inconclusive national elections and by a cholera epidemic that has sickened tens of thousands and killed around 3,500 since October. Despite the success of the massive international relief effort in saving lives and meeting basic humanitarian needs just after the temblor, reconstruction remains a pipe dream for most Haitians.

Given Haiti's deep-seated problems, it was always optimistic to imagine the country would be whole again in 12 months, or "rebuilt better," as the sunny post-quake slogan had it. Given the international community's own checkered experience with long-term rebuilding projects, it was equally optimistic to suppose that the billions of dollars promised to heal Haiti would flow smoothly and quickly and be spent efficiently. .

What is genuinely disappointing, though, is that the Obama administration appears to have given no serious consideration to one major initiative that would make an immediate and positive difference in the lives of tens of thousands of Haitians. Namely, it could grant entry to 55,000 Haitian visa candidates with relatives already in the United States.

This hardly radical proposal has been embraced by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents the very cities that would assume the costs of an influx of immigrants. Moreover, the would-be immigrants' petitions to enter the United States and rejoin their families have already been approved by the Department of Homeland Security. Once the visa backlog - a function of quotas set by Congress - is cleared, the Haitians are likely to settle in this country anyway.

Given the acute needs and deep suffering, it makes moral and economic sense to move them to the front of the line. If Congress will not adjust its visa quotas, then the administration could, on its own, accelerate the entry of applicants who otherwise face waits of four to 11 years, grant them "temporary protective status" on arrival and allow them to work. The remittances they would send home could support thousands of Haitians now struggling to survive.

To date, the administration has turned a deaf ear, barely acknowledging such appeals. . That undercuts the president's pledges that the United States stands ready to do everything possible to help. As the mayors noted last summer, America, the hemisphere's richest country, retains a moral obligation to help Haiti, the poorest.

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