The Florida Senate departed from its relative silence on immigration issues Monday, passing a memorial that encourages the federal government to ease travel restrictions for Haitians looking to come to the United States.
By Toluse Olorunnipaherald, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature has been mostly mum on immigration this year, but state Senators on Monday moved to ask the federal government to make it easier for Haitians to join their family members in the United States.The Senate voted in favor of a memorial asking the Department of Homeland Security to create the Haitian Family Reunification Program, which would speed up the immigration process for Haitians looking to leave the country in the wake of a massive 2010 earthquake there.“Two years later, the damaged country is struggling to attain even the most basic standards of living for the thousands still displaced in makeshift camps,” said Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, who sponsored the legislation along with Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. “Due to the substandard living conditions, many diseases such as cholera are spreading rampantly throughout the country of Haiti.”The memorial is largely symbolic and it does not actually create or change any laws. It simply asks the federal government to offer Haitians a fast track to U.S. residency, as a result of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country of 9.7 million.The reunification program would allow Haitians with family members in the United States to come into the country prior to a visa becoming available. Waiting times for visas can range from three to 10 years after approval.There are nearly 55,000 Haitian nationals with approved visa petitions waiting to receive authorization to come to the United States, according to the Senate. The proposed program, which mirrors the Cuban Family Reunification Program created in 2007, is aimed at discouraging immigrants from attempting dangerous and illegal methods for coming into the country, often on boats that land on Florida shores.For a Legislature that recently struck down a bill that would allow students born in Florida to receive in-state tuition even if their parents are undocumented, the measure to ease immigration laws represented an aberration. The Senate passed the memorial with a voice vote. But a similar memorial in the House, sponsored by Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, has not yet come up for a vote.“Here in Florida, we are fortunate neighbors,” said Campbell, who was born in Cap-Haitien, in a speech last month. “And while the media attention to the earthquake has waned, these tragedies in Haiti still deserve attention.”
In the days after the earthquake, the Obama administration extended Temporary Protected Status to Haitians currently residing in the U.S., and halted deportations for those illegally in the country.
Monday’s vote came as Haiti prepared to host leaders of the Caribbean Community and ambassadors from the United Nations Security Council. The country has achieved limited progress since the earthquake claimed an estimated 316,000 lives and displaced millions, but several challenges remain. A cholera epidemic has killed more than 7,000 people and much of the promised international aid has not yet come in. Campbell said thousands of Haitians are stuck in the lengthy immigration approval process, and some may not live long enough to receive their visas.
“This is a very important issue to my district,” said Braynon. “I had several members of my district come up to voice their concern about this, and this affects more families than you can even imagine.”
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