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Jesuit Refugee Service: Temporary Protection for Haitians – A First Step

January 21, 2010

Shaina Aber & Christian Fuchs write in New America Media:

The decision by the United States last week to grant Haitians in the United States permission to stay, work and send remittances home under a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program is welcome news. This move was an essential first step in response to the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti on Jan. 12.

Temporary Protected Status will give Haitians who are stranded on our shores the ability to remain here during the crisis, and to work and live in the United States legally. Their remittances will allow more than $1 billion in aid to be sent to family members still suffering in the shattered island nation, thus playing a much needed role in the present relief effort. As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti already depends significantly on remittances. By allowing some 130,000 Haitians to legally work in the U.S. and send remittances home to their loved ones in Haiti, the despair of the entire country will be reduced.

Despite this positive news, no timeline has been set for the release of Haitians who are currently being held in our immigration detention centers. This should be a priority. Now that TPS has been approved and deportations have ceased, those held in detention facilities should be discharged quickly and given the opportunity to work and reconnect with their families.

Haitians, though a resilient people, are facing pressing needs. The earthquake directly affected more than three million people out of a population of only nine million. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians have been forced from their homes and lack basic services and supplies. People in towns and villages unaffected by the quake itself have begun to feel concrete repercussions of the devastation as supply lines they’ve come to rely on from the capital city have begun to fail.

While offering TPS to the Haitians stranded within our borders will not solve all of Haiti’s problems, it serves as a critical part of a comprehensive plan that will address the current humanitarian emergency and reduce the international aid burden.

It should be noted that TPS applies only to Haitians who were in the United States as of Jan. 12, the day of the earthquake. It is possible, however, that individuals fleeing the chaos that has gripped Haiti since the earthquake may feel compelled to escape the destruction of their homeland, risking perilous ocean crossings to reach the United States or other countries. These environmental refugees should be treated with compassion and should not be dropped off without support or assistance on the shores of a nation that is unable to offer them safety. Instead, Haitians intercepted at sea should be taken to the U.S. mainland or other safe environments until adequate displaced-persons facilities can be established within Haiti itself.

It has even been suggested that Haitians fleeing their devastated homeland may be “warehoused” in a 25,000-bed facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Such a drastic action should be undertaken only as a last resort. Warehousing displaced Haitians will isolate them from the family and community support they need at this time of crisis.

Hopefully Haitians will not risk their lives by fleeing across the ocean, and the international response to the disaster will provide enough aid and continued assistance to allow earthquake victims to remain in their homeland and rebuild their lives.

What has been apparent over the last week — from U.S. citizens making donations to the U.S. government granting TPS — is the generosity of the American spirit. The outpouring of support from people the world over is heartfelt. This veritable deluge of compassion is a testament to our shared humanity.

Jesuit Refugee Service is an international Catholic organization that serves, accompanies and defends the rights of refugees and displaced people in over 55 countries around the world including Haiti. Shaina Aber is the Associate Advocacy Director at Jesuit Refugee Service, USA and the organizations’ liaison with the Latin American and Caribbean region. Christian Fuchs is the Communications Director at Jesuit Refugee Service, USA. JRS/USA is a member of the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition working to reform the U.S. immigration, detention, and deportation system.

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