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US Mulls Asylum for Haitian Immigrants: Clinton

PORT-AU-PRINCE - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday the United States was considering granting temporary asylum to illegal Haitian immigrants, thousands of whom face imminent expulsion.

"We are looking carefully at the policy which we inherited and we are going to be considering how best (for those) who are here to continue to have those resources," Clinton told reports in Haiti's teeming capital Port-au-Prince.

Haitian President Rene Preval (R) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince during a brief visit. Clinton said Thursday the United States was considering granting temporary asylum to illegal Haitian immigrants, thousands of whom face imminent expulsion. (AFP/Thony Belizaire) "But at the same time, we don't want to encourage other Haitians to make the dangerous journey across the water."

The United States is set to deport more than 30,000 Haitians back to their Caribbean homeland, the poorest country in the Americas which has been hit hard in recent months by a series of hurricanes and natural disasters.

Any changes to temporary protected status (TPS) to allow illegal Haitian immigrants to stay in the United States would be retroactive to before the start of President Barack Obama's administration in January, Clinton said.

"People who were there before President Obama became president would be eligible. People who came after would not be," she cautioned, adding Washington has still not made a final decision.

Haitian President Rene Preval repeatedly urged the previous US administration to grant his fellow countrymen temporary protected status, but his plea fell on deaf ears.

Immigrants from Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan are currently protected under the policy.

On her whirlwind visit to Haiti the US diplomatic chief said she was "encouraged" by an international donors conference in Washington that pledged some 324 million dollars to help the country.

She said Washington will give Haiti 57 million dollars in extra aid this year as part of the aid package announced at Tuesday's conference led by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Haitian government.

"I believe we still have work to do," Clinton said. "Haiti deserves our help."

Officials said Haiti needed 125 million dollars to fill a budget gap for 2009, but the IDB said the donors committed only 41 million dollars for budget support.

The aid announced by Clinton was mainly for roads and other infrastructure projects needed to boost the economy as well as for food and counter-narcotics efforts.

But some 20 million dollars was set aside to ease Haiti's debt burden and free up money in the budget for other purposes.

Haitian President Rene Preval welcomed the assistance but said Haiti must also be more self-reliant, noting that foreign aid accounts for 60 percent of the country's current budget.

"This percentage must gradually be decreased," Preval said. "This can only be done by concerted efforts to increase our revenue" by strengthening the country's institutions.

Thanks to "political stability" Haiti was also addressing a scourge of armed gangs and kidnappings, Preval told a news conference after meeting with Clinton.

"I'm confident to say that this country can move forward without this threat of armed gangs," Preval said.

But he warned that "despite these advances we have made, the stability is still fragile and needs reinforcement," citing drug trafficking, which he called "an enemy of the rule of law, an enemy against the functioning of democratic institutions.

Clinton was set to travel later Thursday to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Haiti is a former French colony and the Dominican Republic a former Spanish one.

In Santo Domingo, the top US diplomat is due to meet with New York-bred Dominican President Leonel Fernandez and "discuss bilateral development cooperation and efforts to combat drug trafficking," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

Clinton will then join Obama and 33 other democratically-elected leaders of the Western Hemisphere April 17-19 in Port of Spain for the Summit of the Americas.

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