THE U.S. CONFERENCE of Mayors, meeting at its annual convention this month in Oklahoma City, did something extraordinary. With no dissent, the mayors called on President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to “promptly” grant entry to 55,000 Haitian visa candidates with relatives in the United States, a measure that would result in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in annual cash transfers flowing into Haiti’s gasping economy. And what was the response from the administration, which has pledged to do all it can to alleviate the humanitarian suffering that befell Haiti in January’s earthquake? Silence.
The issue here is a cohort of Haitians whose relatives live in the United States as citizens or permanent residents, and whose immigration petitions have already been approved by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In other words, they are on their way to the United States sooner or later anyway, once the visa backlog — the result of quotas set by Congress — is cleared. The main question is whether Haitians will face a wait for visas that can last from four years (for the spouses and children under 18 of legal residents of the United States) to 11 years (for siblings of U.S. citizens). Given Haiti’s travails, they can and should be moved to the front of the line — if not by the administration, then by Congress.
There is a recent precedent. Under a program launched by DHS in 2007, the United States has granted entry to about 28,000 Cubans whose family-based immigration petitions have been approved. In effect, they are allowed to wait here rather than in Cuba while the government processes their applications to become permanent residents. And while Haitians would not enjoy the same legal status as Cubans, who are eligible for green cards a year after arriving, the administration could grant them “temporary protective status” on arrival and allow them to work. With similar effect, Congress could adjust its quotas to expedite the issuance of visas to Haitians.
The mayors’ resolution was remarkable because their cities — not the federal government, not the states — might bear the costs associated with an influx of Haitian immigrants. Many of the immigrants would be low-skilled workers with no mastery of English. In the handful of places where most would settle, services, schools and budgets would be stretched — even as municipalities face high unemployment and anemic bank accounts.
Nonetheless, the mayors rightly cited the profound suffering in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, and the moral imperative facing America, the richest.
The Obama administration was quick and forceful in directing personnel, resources and public attention to Haiti after the Jan. 12 quake, and it has pledged large amounts of aid to rebuild the shattered country. Still, no aid program would help Haiti as much as admitting the tens of thousands of Haitians caught in the visa backlog. Remittances to Haiti amounted to about $1.5 billion last year and may reach $2 billion this year. Mr. Obama could further strengthen that lifeline.