By TRENTON DANIEL and JACQUELINE CHARLES
The Bush administration’s decision to temporarily halt deportations to Haiti after four deadly storms does not go far enough, said members of a House Foreign Affairs panel who called Tuesday for the U.S. to step up its assistance to the storm-ravaged country.
Not only should the administration treat Haiti with the same kind of urgency it showed Georgia after it was bombed by Russia, but it should afford undocumented Haitians living in the United States the same kind of temporary refugee status granted to Hondurans and Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch devasted those two nations in 1998, panel members said.
”It is now more imperative than ever that the United States grant Haitian immigrants Temporary Protected Status,” U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, said before the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. “TPS is the least expensive, most immediate form of humanitarian assistance we can provide Haiti.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Friday that it would temporarily halt deportations to Haiti but would review its decision on a day-to-day basis. The relief is not Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a designation approved by Congress in 1990 for foreign nationals fleeing civil war and natural disasters.
A longtime advocate of the Haitian community, Hastings told the committee that the Bush administration’s refusal to take substantive action left Haiti’s already fragile government “vulnerable to greater political instability.”
Later he told The Miami Herald that he was satisfied the hearing had helped to bring more attention to Haiti.
”You have to keep the lamp shining on this,” Hastings said. “I don’t think it would be recognized without the pressure.”
Hastings said he believes the attention lawmakers have sought for Haiti since the storms has convinced lawmakers to include $100 million in additional aid for Haiti in an upcoming budget bill.
”We’ve got to continue highlighting the need,” he said.
Soon after the hearing, Florida Republicans Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart announced that they plan to meet Wednesday with DHS officials to follow up on a letter urging President Bush to grant TPS to Haitians.
Kirsten Madison, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, told congressional lawmakers that while State Department staff members were still discussing TPS designation among themselves, there were concerns that such a designation would ”encourage people to depart” Haiti.
”Obviously, we don’t want to create a humanitarian crisis on the high seas,” she said.
Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., said the storms created ”a disaster of epic proportion,” in an already poor country and could trigger another kind of humanitarian crisis that left people with no choice but flee by sea.
”We have a moral obligation to move expeditiously and quickly,” he said, pointing out that while the administration rushed to pledge $1 billion to Georgia, it was talking ”nickel and dimes” about the disaster in its own backyard.
”Haiti always seems to be last in line. We do not want a humanitarian disaster there,” he said.
MEEK’S ROLE IN HEARING
Tuesday’s hearing was organized by Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who toured the devastation shortly after Hurricane Ike side-swept Haiti and added to the trail of wreckage. He was joined on the trip by fellow Democrats Yvette D. Clarke of New York and Donna F. Edwards of Maryland.
Haitian President René Préval, who is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, has called on the U.S. and others to help him obtain emergency bridges to reconnect the country. Eight key bridges collapsed during the storms.
The aid for Haiti has been slow in coming. The U.N. has collected only 2 percent of a $108 million flash appeal it has requested for emergency relief for the next six months, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Meanwhile, the Haitian government is seeking at least $123 million to replace some of the $180 million in storm-destroyed crops over the next six months.
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.