In January, President Obama pledged not to forsake or forget Haiti during what promised to be a long and painful recovery from the worst earthquake to hit the island nation in 200 years. To that end, the administration immediately sent military assistance and millions of dollars in emergency aid. But it has yet to take another crucial step: expediting the immigration to the United States of the 55,000 Haitians who already have been approved for visas by the Department of Homeland Security.
These Haitians, sponsored by relatives who are either legal residents or citizens, have met all requirements; among other things, they have provided the government with legally binding affidavits from family members guaranteeing financial support so that they do not become a public burden. Due to a monumental backlog of visas available for Haitians, however, officials say the process takes from four to 11 years. Given the dire circumstances in Haiti and the administration’s promise of staunch support, it is both logical and humane to speed this process on their behalf. And there is precedent for doing so. In 2007, President George W. Bush allowed Cubans whose family petitions had been approved to enter the country ahead of schedule, and he did the same for refugees from Indochina and Kosovo. Haitians certainly need visas just as badly, so why the disparate treatment?
Removing tens of thousands of people from Haiti’s ruins and allowing them to live and work in the United States would automatically turn them into providers and benefactors, speeding the island nation’s recovery. Even before the 7.0 earthquake, remittances were crucial to its survival, but now they are indispensable. Millions of Haitians living abroad, including about 800,000 in the U.S., sent home nearly $2 billion last year, and World Bank economists expect to see a 20% surge this year. And the bang for the buck is significant, with up to 10 people benefiting from the funds sent home by each emigrant.
Legislation to create a family reunification program for Haitians, modeled on the Cuban program, is pending in Congress. But it is unnecessary. Obama only has to give the order and the Department of Homeland Security will move Haitians to the front of the line. Time is of the essence; 1 million people remain displaced, and hurricane season has begun.
The Obama administration has kept its word about sending money to Haiti, but the country’s recovery cannot progress without the assistance of its diaspora. Obama should help Haitians to help themselves.