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Relax the Caps for Haitian Visa Applicants—A Commentary by Jeffrey Kahn ’10 and Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The following commentary was posted on The Huffington Post on March 3, 2010.

Relax the Caps for Haitian Visa Applicants
By Jeffrey Kahn ’10 and Aaron Zelinsky ’10

The two-month anniversary of the Haiti quake is fast approaching. The devastation is shocking. Hundreds of thousands are dead and wounded; over a million have been displaced. The tent cities and congested hospitals of Port-au-Prince are a reminder that Haiti's wounds are still fresh. Nevertheless, the transition to rebuilding has begun.

As the Obama Administration and Congress begin to chart the U.S. aid strategy for Haiti, we should not overlook a simple measure that could provide tremendous support for this struggling nation: Congress should temporarily relax the annual cap on lawful immigration from Haiti by permitting greater numbers of Haitians with permanent resident and U.S. citizen family members in the U.S. to emigrate here.

The Haiti redevelopment bill now under review in the Senate presents an opportunity for Congress to make additional lawful immigration possible. By adding a provision to the bill, Congress could allow for a time-limited loosening of the immigration ceilings for this earthquake-battered country.

Under U.S. immigration law, only a fixed number of eligible Haitians with family members in the U.S. can receive "green cards" each year. Congress has created an annual ceiling on immigration of this type, parceling out percentages of the yearly visa allotments based on complicated mathematical formulae. Under this model, even Haitians whose visa petitions have already been granted by the Department of Homeland Security will be required to wait several years before they advance through the backlog created by the entry limits.

Temporarily lifting these migration caps for Haiti makes sense for two reasons. First, lifting the caps would effectively serve as economic aid to Haiti. The Haitian Diaspora sends more than one billion dollars to Haiti in remittances annually, a sum that makes up more than twenty-five percent of the Haitian gross domestic product. Combining a relaxation of immigration caps with a fast track visa regime would increase the number of Haitians legally working in the U.S. and allow for a rapid influx of cash to supplement this stream of remittances to Haiti.

Many in the United States have given generously to Haiti. Temporarily lifting the immigration ceilings for a subset of Haitian emigrants would allow more Haitians to help rebuild their country by working overseas.

Moreover, the Haitians permitted to enter under the temporarily relaxed quotas are those who would eventually receive permission to enter and work in the U.S. and later send remittances home to their families in Haiti. The program would merely speed up this process during this critical moment in Haiti's development.

The second reason the U.S. should temporarily relax the immigration quotas is historical. In the past thirty years, the U.S. has typically responded to crisis in Haiti by reflexively closing the border. A limited lifting of the caps would mark a turn away from the U.S.'s disgraceful history of exclusion.

During the 1980s, when Haiti was under the thumb of the brutal Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship and a series of repressive, military juntas, the U.S. interdicted 21,461 Haitians on the high seas. Out of these 21,461, only 6 were permitted to enter the U.S. to apply for asylum.

During the 1990s, tens of thousands of Haitians fled military death squads and their attachés in Haiti after a coup d'état ousted the country's first democratically-elected president. The U.S. responded by detaining thousands of these Haitians at Guantanamo Bay and, later, by directly returning countless others without any assessment of their eligibility for asylum.

In 2004, following a coup d'état and a wave of political violence, Haitians were once again interdicted on the high seas and detained at Guantanamo Bay. In order to further deter flight from Haiti, the U.S. government tried to broker a deal whereby Haitians with credible asylum claims would be detained on the small, South Pacific island-nation of Nauru. The message was clear: attempt to enter the U.S., and we'll imprison you half way around the world.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the recent earthquake, the U.S. diverted scarce resources to readying the Migrant Operations Center at Guantanamo Bay and the Krome Service Processing Center in Miami for the detention of Haitians fleeing the earthquake's devastation. While private contractors prepped the detention sites at Guantanamo, Haitians seeking emergency medical treatment died awaiting evacuation flights to the U.S. The specter of masses of fleeing Haitians never materialized, and the Guantanamo tent city now sits empty.

There is, however, a path that leads out of this bleak past. Canada has already taken efforts to expedite visa processing for Haitians significantly affected by the earthquake. The U.S. has taken positive steps as well, welcoming medical evacuees and granting Temporary Protected Status to eligible Haitians already in the U.S. at the time of the quake. The Obama administration and Congress should continue this positive trend.

This history shows that when crisis strikes Haiti, the fear-driven response of sealing the U.S. border is not the answer. In the current crisis, the wise policy is to do just the opposite: temporarily lift the ceiling on lawful immigration from Haiti and expedite the processing of visa applications so that eligible Haitians can come to the U.S.

Given the tragic themes that dominate the U.S.'s treatment of Haitian immigrants in the past, the U.S. should learn from this sad history and implement a wise and humane immigration policy towards Haiti, which allows Haitians to help in rebuilding their country. Facilitating lawful Haitian immigration to the U.S. is an important step in this direction.

To contact your elected officials about supporting Haiti's recovery, click here: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml