Obama government keeping Haitians out of US

Tent shelters beside a road in Haiti
Tent shelters beside a road in Haiti

THE US government allows foreign citizens into the US in significant numbers ‘for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit’.

In the past, the beneficiaries of this so-called ‘humanitarian parole’ have been thousands of refugees from Indochina, Cuba and other countries during the cold war, most fleeing Stalinist regimes. So far, however, the government has been far less generous in granting humanitarian parole to Haitians recovering from the January 12 earthquake.

On January 18, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would extend humanitarian parole on a case-by-base basis to children already in the process of being adopted by US citizens.

Parole status has also been approved for a small number of Haitians with dire medical needs, most prominently perhaps Jenny Alexis, a two-month-old baby found in the rubble of a Port-au-Prince flat four days after the earthquake.

She was airlifted to Miami – without US government permission – where doctors restored her to health. Her parents were later granted humanitarian parole to be with her. In total, about 1,000 Haitians have been given parole status since the quake.

‘The numbers are ridiculously small given the scale of the calamity,’ said Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based attorney who has been involved in Haitian affairs since the 1970s.

In February, legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress that would extend humanitarian parole to 55,000 Haitians whose immigration applications were approved before the earthquake but who face the prospect of waiting years before gaining entry.

Democrat Representative Yvette Clarke, the sponsor in the House of Representatives, told the IRIN news service that she had heard complaints ‘for years’ from her Haitian constituents in Brooklyn about the need to expedite the immigration process. The bills were introduced even though Congressional approval does not appear to be necessary for the Obama administration to act.

In fact, on March 8th, eight members of Congress wrote to Janet Napolitano, President Barack Obama’s secretary of the DHS, to ask that the department ‘consider using its parole authority’ in the case of the 55,000 Haitians.

The Haitians would be able to contribute to the reconstruction of their country by sending remittances.

‘You can put this into motion without a dime being spent by the US government,’ said Steve Forester of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. It will put money into the hands of probably 500,000 people in Haiti. A Haitian working here supports as many as 10 people in Haiti, sometimes less, sometimes more.

A major goal is to speed the recovery. Shouldn’t we use all means at our disposal?’

The matter was raised with Vice-President Joe Biden after a meeting with Haitian-American community leaders in Miami on April 5th.

‘I went to him afterwards and told him that it was one of the most efficient ways that the Obama administration can help in the recovery process,’ said Marleine Bastien, founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami), a community organisation. She said Biden was interested to learn that the proposal had support from both Republican and Democratic members of Congress from south Florida.

‘He said, “I will be sure to look into it”,’ Bastien said. ‘He was very cautious. Hopefully we will hear something.’

Haiti advocates are also pushing for a more generous humanitarian parole policy for those in life-threatening circumstances, a classification that admittedly could include hundreds of thousands of people.

Jayne Fleming, a human rights lawyer from San Francisco, travelled to Haiti in March with a team of lawyers and doctors to interview those who might qualify. They spoke to widows unable to feed their children, orphans with relatives in the US, individuals with ‘extreme’ medical needs, and a frightening number of rape survivors.

She is returning to Haiti later in the month to finalise parole applications for 52 of them. ‘There are people in Haiti right now who will die if they don’t get out,’ she said. ‘Those are the ones we see as eligible for humanitarian parole.’

Former US President Bill Clinton, now a UN Special Envoy to Haiti, has pledged to foster the country’s self-sufficiency after expressing regret for implementing policies during his administration that damaged its agricultural capacity and ability to feed itself. ‘That’s what we’re doing now,’ he said on March 31, pointing to efforts to spur coffee and mango production.

It was taken as a hopeful sign for those who have long advocated changes in the way the US government delivers food to developing countries.

Clinton told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10 about his administration’s role in exporting US-subsidised foodstuffs to Haiti, taking advantage of lower tariffs set as a condition on loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

Among the items was US rice, which was cheaper than the home-grown variety and contributed to the collapse of the Haitian rice industry: 47 per cent of Haiti’s rice supply was domestically produced in 1988; in 2008 it had plummeted to 15 per cent.

Agricultural capacity was also harmed by the flood of food aid sent to cope with humanitarian crises, some of which wound up in local markets. ‘It was a mistake . . . I was a party to . . . I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did – nobody else,’ Clinton told the committee chaired by Senator John F Kerry.

Clinton described the policy as an effort to ‘free those places to . . . skip agricultural development and go straight into the industrial era’, but said it had ‘failed everywhere it’s been tried . . . you just can’t take the food chain out of production . . . it also undermines a lot of the culture, the fabric of life, the sense of self-determination,’ he told reporters at an international donors conference at the UN on March 31.

The Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research has called on the international community to buy the entire Haitian rice crop over the next two years, which would account for 2.35 per cent of total current committed aid funds.