Advocates, Florida delegation push immigration program to help rebuild Haiti

In 2012, Alexandra Simin, 25, walks through Jalousie, a mountaintop slum community overlooking Petionville. Untold numbers of former tent dwellers, victims of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, have taken up residence in the slum after being apart of a government rental subsidy program. (Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald/MCT)
In 2012, Alexandra Simin, 25, walks through Jalousie, a mountaintop slum community overlooking Petionville. Untold numbers of former tent dwellers, victims of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, have taken up residence in the slum after being apart of a government rental subsidy program. (Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald/MCT) Miami Herald/MCT

A bipartisan group of members of the House of Representatives – including those from South Florida – is pushing the Obama administration to create an immigration program for Haitians that would accelerate the flow of immigrants from that country and help it recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake.

The effort has been underway for four years, though, and there’s little public indication whether the White House will or won’t ultimately back it. Advocates say now would be a perfect time to strike, given the White House’s recent decision to postpone any major immigration actions until after the midterm elections.

“This is one of the programs where it makes absolutely no sense not to move forward,” said Rep. Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat.

Not acting now, he added, is causing needless harm. “Inevitably, they will be here – and we’re prolonging the inevitable to the detriment of our community,” he said. “It’s bad policy and bad politics.”

The advocates haven’t let up their pressure, despite the four years since the January 2010 quake – and despite longstanding feelings that the Haitian community’s concerns are often overlooked in the nation’s ongoing political debates over immigration.

Two weeks ago, the African American Baptist Mission Collaboration weighed in, imploring the White House to create what would be known as a Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program as “a critical step to addressing an incredible hardship.”

“It is the right thing to do for Haiti,” wrote leaders of the organization, which was formed to help Haiti rebuild after the quake. “It is the right thing to do for the United States.”

Before that, the NAACP, the Miami-Dade County Commission, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the American Bar Association, a range of Haitian American and other civil rights groups, and dozens of Republican and Democratic lawmakers all prodded the White House and the departments that oversee immigration issues to create the program.

“We have had a number of conversations with some White House officials, and they have been very responsive,” said Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “We didn’t get an indication they were opposed to it, but were looking for ways to get it through.”

The program is similar, advocates say, to a family reunification program for Cubans, created in 2007.

Eight U.S. representatives from South Florida joined in a letter to President Barack Obama in May pushing for the program. In addition to Garcia, that included Democrats Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson, as well as Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. It concluded: “Your administration can take immediate steps to save and improve lives by allowing Haitians who have already been approved to join their families in the United States.”

The program potentially could benefit more than 109,000 Haitians who have had their family-based immigrant visa petitions approved by the Department of Homeland Security but who still can’t come to the United States because of caps on the number of people who can come into the U.S. each year.

Those caps mean that some individuals who have already been approved by the Department of Homeland Security will have to wait years _ between two and 12, depending on their category – before being allowed into the U.S. with green card authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.

But if a Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program were created, already-approved Haitians would be allowed to enter the United States and apply for work permits. They would not get their permanent resident status any earlier. But if granted work authorization in the U.S., they would likely send some of their earnings to family members back in Haiti, helping spur the devastated country’s recovery.

Advocates are still waiting for any indication that the administration is taking the reunification program idea seriously.

“We have kept high-level administration officials informed of all the support as it has developed since January 2010, including all of the recent letters, but have never been given a reason for the inaction,” said Steven Forester, immigration policy coordinator for the nonprofit Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

The White House referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which pointed to a letter it sent members of Congress in July. It had no other comment.

In the letter, the department said it has taken “urgent steps” to increase the number of Haitians who could legally immigrate to or remain in the United States. Right now, for example, Haiti has “temporary protected status,” allowing some Haitians already working here to continue to do so.

But the letter was noncommittal on the family reunification plan. Department officials have “taken your request for the creation of a family reunification parole program for Haitians under advisement and are actively reviewing this proposal,” the department wrote.

But so far, there’s been no action.

“We are very hopeful,” said Rep. Wilson, a Democrat from Miami Gardens pushing the issue. “They keep saying they’re working on it.”

She added that “while everyone wants family reunification” – meaning prospective immigrants from other nations – the situation in Haiti is distinct enough, and the conditions there so poor, that it warrants special consideration.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Wilson said. “I think they deserve it.”

Despite the view of South Florida lawmakers, those opposed to the idea also couch it as a matter of fairness.

The Congressional Research Service, which explored the issue in a 2011 report, noted the advocates’ views that the plan would increase the cash going back to Haiti from family members, thus helping the nation rebuild. But it also noted opponents’ view that the idea isn’t fair to those from other countries who are waiting to reunite with their families.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research organization that supports tougher enforcement measures, said he sees the Haitian program as a “way of cutting in line.”

“We have annual numerical caps for a reason,” Krikorian said. “The push for this change in policy is to go around those. There’s no justification for allowing Haitians to cut in line and ignore the caps and not do the same for those from China and India and the Philippines and Mexico.”

As for the dire humanitarian concerns in Haiti, Krikorian said those are real. But there are other nations with serious humanitarian concerns as well, he said.

Americans’ attitudes toward immigration have softened in recent decades, and the number of survey respondents who say immigrants “strengthen the U.S. with their hard work and talents” is now slightly more than those who say they are a “burden because they take jobs, health care,” according to polling by the Pew Research Center through 2013.

One poll specifically on Haitian immigration – taken in the aftermath of the quake – asked whether the United States should increase the number of immigrants from that country in response. Just over half of respondents in the USA Today/Gallup poll said no; 41 percent said yes.

While Forester of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti said that Haitians and Hispanics are united in support of immigration reforms, he said the Haitian American community is much smaller in number and more localized than the nationwide Hispanic community, which has greater clout.

“The considerations regarding black Haitians geographically localized primarily in New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago and a few other places may be quite different,” said Forester.

The devastating quake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, hit the Caribbean nation Jan. 12, 2010. According to the Department of Homeland Security, various estimates put the death toll between 230,000 and 316,000.