Americans are already pouring humanitarian aid into Haiti, but the next question for President Obama will be whether to grant temporary legal residence to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants and legal visitors from Haiti.
Mr. Obama, who halted deportations to Haiti in the wake of this week’s earthquake, is facing pressure from members of Congress and refugee and civil rights groups to go a step further and grant temporary protected status to Haitians in the U.S. That would give them a reprieve to live and work in the U.S. while Haiti recovers.
“If you look at the law, and when it’s supposed to be applied, when the circumstances are, this is a case study of why Congress passed the legislation” to create the program, said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and one of dozens of lawmakers from both parties who have asked Mr. Obama to grant the status.
Advocates of a crackdown on illegal immigration say a natural disaster should not be used to create what amounts to a temporary amnesty.
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“This is political opportunism, not compassionate relief,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican. “The people that need help are under and around the rubble in Haiti. Let’s help them.”
The tragedy in Haiti has set off other touchy issues. The U.S. is extending a helping hand while trying not to become overly responsible for the fate of the impoverished nation.
The decision on temporary protected status will be made by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. A spokesman for Ms. Napolitano said the status is “in the range of considerations” but not the top priority right now.
A magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, on Tuesday, and the U.S. has committed to $100 million of immediate aid and dispatched military forces to provide medical and security assistance.
The White House said it’s too early to put a price tag on the assistance but rejected the notion that the U.S. is taking an oversized role.
“The Haitian government is in control of Haiti,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “They’re the government of Haiti. They have asked for, as you can imagine, to meet the devastating earthquake, extraordinary assistance that the president has instructed all of the members of our team to work as hard as humanly possible on helping to provide to them.”
The Haitian government requested but was denied temporary protected status for its citizens in the U.S. after a series of hurricanes in 2008.
People from five nations have temporary protected status. About 300 Somalis have had that status since 1991, 500 Sudanese have been protected since 1997, 70,000 Hondurans and 3,500 Nicaraguans have been covered since 1998, and 229,000 people from El Salvador received protection after a 2001 earthquake, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The status is granted for 18 months or less but is extended repeatedly because of insufficient recovery in those countries.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which calls for stricter immigration rules, said the temporary protected status was created for disasters such as Haiti’s but that the previous cases raise questions.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of argument over whether we should halt deportations for Haitian illegal aliens. The question is how do we make sure this doesn’t become a permanent amnesty, which is essentially what it’s been for everybody else who’s ever gotten it,” he said.
Mr. Krikorian said temporary protected status would grant a reprieve to 30,000 Haitians who have deportation orders, as well as an unknown number of others who are in the U.S. illegally or on legal temporary visas.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform said protected status for Haitians should be coupled with an end to the other long-standing programs.
Mr. Diaz-Balart said criticisms of other cases shouldn’t affect Haiti’s situation. He said now that the government has halted deportations, Haitians will have to find a legal way to work in the U.S., and that requires temporary protected status.
He said the U.S. should be prepared for prolonged engagement with Haiti because of the length of time it takes to recover from major disasters.
“It takes a lot more time to recover for a small, poor nation, and Haiti is the poorest nation in this hemisphere,” he said. “If anybody thinks temporary means two months, that’s just not reasonable. Temporary can take a long time.”
Mr. King suggested that some Haitians in the U.S. might be able to help back home.
“Haiti is in great need of relief workers and many of them could be a big help to their fellow Haitians. I hope they get right with the law and go home to help,” he said.