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.   

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