The day after an earthquake plunged Haiti into ruin and despair, the Obama administration suspended the deportation of Haitian illegal immigrants. This was sensible as well as compassionate, as Haiti obviously is in no position to repatriate 100,000 returning migrants. But halting deportations is not enough, so we applaud the administration's decision Friday to grant temporary protected status to Haitians. Doing so will permit them to stay and work in the U.S. for a limited period of 12 to 18 months.
Temporary protected status was created by Congress in 1990 for exactly this purpose: to aid immigrants who could not return to their countries because of war, natural disasters or civil strife. Haitians certainly meet the criteria as well as many other populations with protected status. Hondurans and Nicaraguans in the U.S. received protected status after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and have had multiple extensions. Salvadorans, who fled massive earthquakes in 2001, also received their most recent extension in 2008. Liberia begged the U.S. to renew protected status for its immigrants last year, maintaining that the country, with 85% unemployment and ongoing civil strife, could neither absorb returnees nor do without their remittances of about $60 million annually. The extension was granted.
The protected status program has foes, and some of their arguments have merit. The multiple extensions, in which what was originally supposed to be a one- to two-year reprieve endures for nine, 10 or even more years, make a mockery of Congress' original intent and have transformed temporary status into a de facto residency entitlement program. This began almost as soon as the program was created, with protected status bestowed on some migrant populations and withheld from others without apparent rhyme or reason, and then extended repeatedly for communities blessed with powerful advocates in Washington. In truth, if protected status were genuinely indexed to suffering, Haitians would have received it after hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike battered the island in 2008, leaving 1 million people homeless. But the Bush administration declined that request.
Granting Haitians protected status is the right thing to do. But the U.S. should take the opportunity to bring credibility to the program. Haitians now residing in the U.S. -- the only ones eligible for protected status -- may need many months before they can return to their country. But they must understand that they're being allowed to stay for a respite period only. The goal is to send them home, safely, as soon as is feasible.