Let the Haitians In

Jean Montrevil was shackled, imprisoned,
about to be sent to Haiti. It was Jan. 6, days before the earthquake
that would devastate Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western
Hemisphere. Montrevil came to the U.S. with a green card in 1986 at the
age of 17. Twenty years ago, still a teenager, he was convicted of
possession of cocaine and sent to prison for 11 years. Upon release, he
married a U.S. citizen; he has four U.S.-citizen children, owns a
business, pays taxes and is a legal, permanent resident. He is a
well-respected Haitian New York community activist. But because of his
earlier conviction, he was on an immigration supervision program,
requiring him to check in with an immigration official every two weeks.
On Dec. 30, during his routine visit, he was immediately detained and
told he would be deported to Haiti. A fellow detainee bound for Haiti
had a fever. That man's illness halted the flight, and then the
earthquake struck.

The devastating toll of the Jan. 12
earthquake in Haiti continues to mount. Most efforts to rescue people
from the rubble have ended. More than 150,000 people have been buried,
some in makeshift graves near the ruins of the homes where they died,
but many in unmarked, mass graves at Titanyen, the site of massacres
during previous dictatorships and coups. More than 1 million people are
homeless out of Haiti's population of 9 million. The stench of decaying
bodies is still pervasive in the capital city of Port-au-Prince as well
as in outlying towns, which, two weeks out, have seen little outside
help. It was painful to see the mass of aid stockpiled at the airport.
The Haitians need it now. For example, I saw pallets with thousands of
bottles of Aquafina water there. Hopeful when a truck arrived to load
up, I asked where it was headed. "To the U.S. Embassy," I was told.

One of the principal sources of
national income in Haiti is the flow of remittances from the Haitian
diaspora, whose cash, wired to family members back in Haiti, amounts to
one-third of Haiti's gross national product. For years, after four
major hurricanes and massive flooding, the Haitian community has simply
been asking to be treated like Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Salvadorans
in similar circumstances, to receive Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
TPS allows people to stay in the U.S., and legally work, during times
of armed conflict or natural disaster, and is a critical element of any
humane policy. Finally, following frantic grass-roots lobbying after
the earthquake, the U.S. government extended TPS to Haitians.

But TPS is not enough. Haitians need to
be allowed into the United States, legally, compassionately and
immediately. I visited hospitals and clinics in Port-au-Prince, with
thousands of people waiting for care, and amputations happening with
ibuprofen or Motrin, if patients were lucky. Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based
attorney who represented Haiti for years, says the U.S. must let in
those immediately who need medical care, that far too few of the
injured have been brought to the U.S. In addition, he told me, the U.S.
should bring many more people from Haiti, including all those people
who had approved petitions by family members. It's about 70,000 people.
These people have been approved, but are essentially in a multiyear
waiting line to move to the U.S. Kurzban compared the historical
willingness and ability of the U.S. to accept Cuban refugees with what
he calls a policy of "containment" with Haiti, preventing people from
leaving and blocking the shores with the Coast Guard. The first thing I
saw when flying in to Port-au-Prince days after the earthquake were the
Coast Guard cutters. They weren't bringing aid in, or carrying people
out. They were preventing Haitians from leaving.

National Nurses United, the largest
nurses union in the U.S., has 12,000 registered nurses willing to
travel to Haiti to help, but they say they can't get assistance from
the Obama administration. So they called filmmaker Michael Moore. He
told me this week: "This is pretty pathetic if you're having to call
me. I mean, you are the largest nurses union ... and you can't get a
call in to the White House?" The NNU is seeking individual sponsors
through its Web site.

Grass-roots and church groups in New York City demanded freedom for
Jean Montrevil, and he was released. It is that kind of solidarity that
is now needed by millions of Haitians, here and in Haiti, suffering the
greatest catastrophe in their history.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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