Friday, Jan. 15, 2010

Earthquake Leads U.S. to Relax Policy on Haitian Refugees

Even before the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti was an economic and security nightmare — abysmally poor, politically unstable, with the threat of gang violence continually beneath the surface. And yet, unlike undocumented immigrants from similarly troubled countries, those from the island nation who were detained by U.S. immigration officials have quickly been ordered to be deported. Now the catastrophe has led the Obama Administration to end the controversial policy. On Friday, the third day after the earthquake, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Haitians "not legally in the United States" as of Jan. 12 would be granted a form of asylum called Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which would allow them to work in the U.S. for the next 18 months. Earlier in the week, she had declared a suspension of the enforcement of the expulsion orders given to 30,000 Haitians.

For years, Haitian Americans and many advocates for undocumented aliens have complained that TPS has been withheld from migrants from the island nation. According to the Department of Homeland Security, TPS is granted to "aliens in the United States who are temporarily unable to safely return to their home country because of ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions." That sounds very much like Haiti, which even before the earthquake was constantly ravaged by earthquakes, civil instability and economic catastrophe. Only six countries have been given TPS by the U.S.: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Burundi, Sudan and Somalia — several of them for hurricanes or disasters that occurred years ago. Few have the same degree of poverty as Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The Bush Administration said conditions in Haiti did not warrant TPS.

The issue is snarled in political and populist fears that TPS would result in a flood of refugees to the U.S. from the island. Indeed, as Napolitano made the announcement, she reiterated that the status was being granted only to Haitians in the U.S. as of Jan. 12, not those emigrating illegally afterward. She said, "People should not leave Haiti with the false belief that they will be entitled to TPS in the United States."

Those against TPS for Haitians argue that it would become a dangerous magnet for refugees, luring them across dangerous waters. Last year, at least 15 Haitians drowned in shark-infested waters off the coast of Turks and Caicos when a smuggler's boat crammed with more than 200 migrants began to take on water. That sinking followed a similar tragedy just off the east coast of Florida. "We're concerned that migrant smugglers will use this issue to encourage more people to go for it, to go now," says Captain Peter Brown, who notes that the Coast Guard does not have an official policy on whether Haitians should receive TPS. "All that does is put more people in the water." The earthquake has increased concerns that more Haitians will take to the sea in search of succor in the U.S., and coastal watches have increased in the U.S. Gulf Coast. In her press conference, Napolitano said, "We are seeing no signs of any migration of that type."

Advocates for Haitian migrants say allowing undocumented aliens to work in the U.S. could actually stem the flow of refugees. Last year alone, Haitians in the U.S. sent an estimated $1.8 billion in remittances back home. That, of course, is not enough to transform an economic basket case that already receives about a third of its budget as U.S. aid, but it is an important lifeline.

Many advocates were frustrated when at the beginning of the Obama presidency, the first African-American President did not appear sympathetic to the dire plight of those hailing from the world's first black republic. President Obama said in June he would not alter U.S. policy towards Haitian immigrants in the near future, though he said he would review it as part of a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. But now an act of God has made keeping the status quo ethically untenable. "We are the most entitled to TPS," said Father Reginald Jean May, a leading voice in the south Florida Haitian community, before the earthquake. The Catholic priest continued, "When you look at the conditions of Haiti and all it's been through, the hurricanes and political instability, Haitians deserve better treatment. We are not jealous of other immigrant groups — we just want the same thing they have." And now they have.

With reporting by Michael Scherer / Washington