In January, portions of the island nation of Haiti, already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, were devastated by a massive earthquake, resulting in the loss as many as 300,000 lives, and possibly more.
Many nations quickly reacted to provide humanitarian aid to Haiti. As Americans, we applaud the tremendous efforts commenced by the U.S. military and many U.S.-based NGOs including American Jewish organizations to provide relief to the Haitian people. As Jews, we took particular pride when Israel quickly air-lifted an entire field hospital to Haiti, that provided perhaps the best medical care available in Haiti in the days following the earthquake, and when Israeli search and rescue teams pulled a number of victims, alive, from the rubble.
It is important to continue these efforts, because the need for medical care, temporary shelter, and food aid will continue indefinitely. Haiti will also need substantial assistance to rebuild housing and infrastructure, as the Haitian people lack the resources to do so on their own.
There have been sporadic efforts by the United States over the years to assist in improving Haiti’s government structure and to provide aid to its long-suffering people. Generally, the United States engagement with Haiti has been limited to times when that nation was in crisis and the focus of the American people and our government quickly shifted elsewhere as the memory of each crisis receded. The U.S. now has an opportunity to engage with Haiti over the long term, to help the Haitian people build a brighter future for themselves.
Shortly after the disaster, President Obama granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which will enable as many as 200,000 Haitians to remain and work legally in the United States while Haiti rebuilds. This will significantly increase – likely by hundreds of millions of dollars – the amount of money Haitians can send to their family and friends at home and will greatly contribute to the rebuilding of their country. While TPS is a critical first step, more must be done. Family unification is a paramount concern. Many Haitians who have been granted TPS have spouses and children still living in Haiti, who are not currently authorized to join their relative in the U.S.
In addition, many persons of Haitian descent who are already U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, or have been granted asylum, have been waiting for years for the U.S. government to issue visas to their family members who remain in Haiti. While the Department of Homeland Security has prioritized the processing of immigrant family visa petitions and asylee/refugee family visa petitions filed on behalf of Haitians by their relatives in the U.S., approval of such a petition does not mean that families will be reunited in the U.S. anytime soon. Some 19,000 Haitians have pending applications for such visas, and nearly 55,000 Haitians have been approved for family visas but are on waiting lists to enter because Congress has set limits on how many may come each year. Under normal circumstances, it can take many years after a petition is approved for relatives to obtain a visa to join their family in the U.S.
Due to its poor economic condition, there were already hundreds of thousands of orphans in Haiti prior to the earthquake. The earthquake has created an even greater number of orphans, and a number of orphanages in Haiti were destroyed or damaged by the earthquake.
Between 1982 and 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy stopped—or “interdicted”—114,716 Haitians on the high seas as they tried to make their way to the U.S. While many sought to come here for economic reasons, others had been subject to persecution in Haiti. Currently, U.S. policy is to return these Haitians to Haiti without inquiry as to whether they might qualify for asylum. Only if Haitians verbally object to, or physically resist, repatriation are they asked if they fear persecution if returned to Haiti. Not all asylum seekers escaping by boat are subject to this policy, known as the “shout test.” For example, Cubans are questioned in Spanish to determine whether or not they have a reason to fear return. Chinese are given a questionnaire that elicits the same information.
Even with the “shout test” in place, large numbers of Haitians have been granted asylum in the U.S. There is every reason to suspect, given the central government’s fragile hold on power, that lawlessness and persecution on political, ethnic and religious grounds will continue to be a problem in Haiti. The Jewish community is particularly sensitive to the issues confronting Haitian boat people, given our memory of the Jews aboard the Saint Louis, many of whom ultimately perished in the Holocaust after being turned away by the U.S. in 1939.
The JCPA believes that:
- The governments and people of the United States and Israel are to be commended for the Herculean humanitarian efforts undertaken by them in the weeks following the earthquake.
- Much more remains to be done. Governmental and non-governmental efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Haiti must continue for many years to come. The United States government should commit to engagement in Haiti for the long-term and, in particular, should engage in efforts to establish the infrastructure and conditions necessary to allow the Haitians to lift themselves from what has been a long history of deprivation, poverty, and injustice.
- The United States should reduce barriers to re-unification of Haitians residing lawfully in the United States with their immediate family members still residing in Haiti. Among other things, Congress should loosen the immigration quotas on Haitians with family members residing lawfully in the United States.
- The United States government should engage in discussions with the Haitian government for the purpose of increasing the number and speed of adoptions of Haitian orphans by families in the United States.
- The “shout test” for Haitians should be replaced. Haitian boat people intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard or Navy should be asked, in Creole, whether they have been subjected to persecution in Haiti or otherwise fear persecution if repatriated to Haiti. The U.S. should then thoroughly investigate the situation of those who answer in the affirmative to determine whether they should be granted asylum in the U.S.
The community relations field should:
- Promote efforts by Jewish organizations to directly provide humanitarian aid to Haiti and to raise funds for Haitian relief efforts.
- Participate in interfaith efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Haiti.
- Increase awareness, both within the Jewish and general communities, of the vigorous and effective relief efforts undertaken in Haiti by the Israeli government and Israeli and American Jewish NGOs.
- Advocate for a loosening of U.S. restrictions on Haitian immigration that may present a barrier to reunifying persons of Haitian descent lawfully residing in the United States with their immediate family members still living in Haiti.
- Advocate for an increase in the number of Haitian government-approved adoptions of Haitian orphans by American families and for a reduction in the time required to consummate such adoptions.
- Advocate for replacement of the “shout test” by a procedure by which U.S. Coast Guard and Naval personnel inquire of each Haitian interdicted on the high seas, in Creole, whether he or she has been subjected to persecution, or otherwise fears persecution if repatriated to Haiti, with proper follow-up to determine whether those answering in the affirmative qualify for asylum.
- Promote and advocate for measures to provide humanitarian assistance and to rebuild the Haitian infrastructure in consultation and collaboration with the Haitian government and NGOs. This should include technical assistance on seismic standards and other areas which might mitigate the impact natural disasters.