Haitians eligible to receive green cards in two years soon will be able to wait it out in the United States rather than in Haiti under an expedited family reunification program announced Friday by the Obama administration.
Beginning early next year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will implement the Haitian Family Reunification Parole (HFRP) Program to accelerate the reunification of eligible Haitian family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, who are living in Haiti and have already been approved for a family-based immigrant visa.
There are approximately 100,000 Haitians in the immigration pipeline in Haiti but only those two years away from being issued an immigrant visa for a green card will be eligible to apply. Once paroled into the United States, individuals will be eligible to apply for a work permit and continue their wait for the green card while here.
Haitian and immigration advocates, who launched the push for accelerated family reunification in the days after Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, welcomed the major policy shift but vowed to keep fighting on behalf of all those who remain in visa backlog. For some, the wait is as long as 12 years.
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“We are grateful that the administration has stepped up to the plate and done the right thing,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be as restrictive as it seems to be in terms of which Haitians who are eligible to join their loved ones here, but obviously it’s going to benefit a number of Haitian families who have been waiting for this since the earthquake.”
The hemisphere’s worst disaster, Haiti’s quake killed more than 300,000, injured an equal number and left 1.5 million homeless. The expedited program announcement comes not only three months before the fifth anniversary of the disaster, but reportedly ahead of plans by President Barack Obama to legalize by executive action, many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. This summer, Obama threatened to fix the country’s immigration woes by taking action on his own after congress failed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Last year, the Senate passed a bill that would have provided a path to legal status for millions of long-term undocumented immigrants while also strengthening border security. But House Republicans refused to consider the Senate bill, which some conservatives said was amnesty for lawbreakers.
“Comprehensive immigration reform would have solved this problem not just for Haitians but for all other nationalities who are waiting in the immigrant visa backlog because it would have substantially increased the numbers of family immigrant visas available and people would have been able to come in as permanent residents,” said a senior U.S. government official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “As it hasn’t happened, we are proceeding with this program.”
The relief for Haitians hasn’t been as controversial as the anticipated executive action because it involves a limited number of Haitian nationals.
Officials point out that the Haitian family reunification program is fashioned after a similar program for Cubans, where the U.S. has agreed to grant at least 20,000 annual visas. Some advocates estimate that the number of Haitians could be as many as 5,000 in the first year.
“It’s a very limited program,” said Steve Forester, a Haitian immigration activist, who like others see Friday’s announcement as a compromise of what they wanted. “We don’t know how many people it will cover, and a lot will depend on how quickly they implement it.”
Still, Forester, who has led the years-long effort as immigration policy coordinator for the nonprofit Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, said “it’s a good first step in the right direction.”
“This isn’t a gift. They did this because of how Haiti is. This will save lives and reunite families, and hopefully generate some remittances for Haitians in need,” he said.
According to the Inter-American Development Bank, in 2013 Haitians sent home about $2 billion in remittances, which have become a lifeline of the country’s weak economy.
Guerlin Macajoux, 48, of Miami said he applied for his son Bendy, 28, four years ago. The last time he checked, he said, there was still a three-year wait.
“I haven’t seen him for a long time and I would like to see him,” said Macajoux, who is too ill to travel to Haiti. “I would like to see him. Things are very difficult for him in Haiti even though I am encouraging him to stay in school until the three years come.”
The push for a Haitian immigration program had attracted at least 80 pieces of support from diverse groups. There were letters to the White House from national Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the entire South Florida congressional delegation, the Miami-Dade County Commission, the NAACP, the African American Baptist Mission Collaboration, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the American Bar Association and a range of Haitian American and other civil rights groups.
But even with all that, including 17 editorials in nearly a dozen major U.S. daily newspapers, some had given up hope the program would happen.
“We are elated by the Obama administration...for finally listening to our collective voices,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami/Haitian Women of Miami.
“At least we have our foot in the door,” she added. “But we will continue to work for the rest of the group who are qualified to get them the opportunity to be reunited with their family members because they have been waiting for so long.”
South Florida congressional lawmakers also welcomed the news.
“This is a great win for my Congressional District, which is home to the largest Haitian community in the U.S,” said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens. “I look forward to personally welcoming and rolling out the red carpet for the first wave of recipients of this program.”
Alejandro Mayorkas, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security who had met with Haitian community activists over the years about the issue, said the parole program promotes a fundamental underlying goal of the U.S. immigration system, family reunification.
It also addresses another concern of the United States, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Haiti’s recovery since the earthquake.
“The rebuilding and development of a safe and economically strong Haiti is a priority for the United States,” Mayorkas said, adding that the parole program “also supports broader U.S. goals for Haiti’s reconstruction and development by providing the opportunity for certain eligible Haitians to safely and legally immigrate sooner to the United States.”
With the announcement, immigration officials are also strongly discouraging Haitians from taking to the high seas in dangerous makeshift boats to reach the United States. Dozens of Haitians have perished at sea in the last year trying to escape Haiti’s hardship.
“Such individuals will not qualify for the HFRP program and if located at sea may be returned to Haiti,” Mayorkas said.