By John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post
MIAMI — South Florida Haitian community leader Marlene Bastien is hoping for a big Christmas present this season from President Obama.
Bastien is praying the administration will alter its current policy and allow Haitians who have relatives in the U.S. and have been approved for legal entry here, but are on a waiting list, to arrive ahead of schedule.
About 55,000 are waiting, and it could take 11 years for all of them to immigrate.
Bastien and other Haitian leaders are concerned that those people are in danger in post-earthquake Haiti. A sped-up schedule also would allow some of them to find work in the U.S., send money back to needy relatives and help rebuild their ravaged country.
“It would be a Christmas present for Haitian families here who are suffering and worrying about their loved ones,” said Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami.
“It would also be a Christmas present to Haiti.”
Bastien emphasized that the cost to the U.S. would be minimal – basically the cost of the paperwork.
“The people coming would not qualify for any public assistance at all for at least five years,” she said. “But even after five years, Haitians almost never ask for public assistance. We are very proud. That is our history in this country.”
But with a double-digit unemployment rate in South Florida, where could the new Haitians find jobs?
“Haitians are very entrepreneurial, both in Haiti and here,” Bastien said.
“They will start businesses and their families will help them. They will not be an added burden on this country.”
The Jan. 12 quake killed between 250,000 and 300,000 and devastated the country’s already meager economy. Cholera has killed an additional 2,500 as of mid-December, and political unrest surrounding the contested presidential election has made life there even more dangerous.
Before the earthquake, the Department of Homeland Security had approved all of the 55,000 for legal entry, said Steve Forester, Miami-based attorney for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
“These are people who will be coming here eventually anyway because they have Homeland Security permission, but that is only if they survive what is going on in Haiti,” Forester said.
Forester emphasized that the effort to quicken the flow of immigrants also has practical value.
“Each Haitian working here can send back enough money to support about 10 people there,” he said. “The person who comes here stops being a burden, someone who needs to be fed and housed in Haiti” – sometimes with U.S. foreign aid.
“That person becomes part of the solution, because of the money they can send back,” Forester said.
Even before the earthquake, remittances from abroad made up about one-third of Haiti’s economy. Supporters – including some members of Congress – say they are more necessary now.
Supporters have suggested that of the 55,000, several thousand per month should be allowed to come. Most would end up in Florida and New York, where their families live.
No decree by Congress is needed – just an announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
But “so far the only response to our pleas has been silence,” Bastien said.
“It has been very disappointing. This would help Haiti so much.”
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