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Views from the Center


This is a joint post with Tejaswi Velayudhan

A year and a half ago, an earthquake wrecked Haiti. So many Haitians were killed that if the same fraction of the U.S. population were cut down, the deaths would outnumber the entire population of Tennessee. Commendable relief efforts are ongoing, supported in large part by U.S. assistance, but economic and political disarray have led to widespread perception that those efforts are inadequate.

Unfortunately, as it proceeds with the hard work of disaster relief for Haiti, the U.S. government has chosen not to use its most powerful tool: migration policy. Migration out of Haiti has caused more poverty reduction for Haitians than all attempts at poverty reduction within Haiti combined. Remittances to Haiti have amounted to at least double foreign aid, for years. Remittances also—unlike foreign aid—go directly into the pockets of needy people, and they rise more quickly after disasters than aid does. While the U.S. government has recently and sensibly suspended the deportations of some Haitians who arrived in the U.S. after the earthquake, it has not systematically used migration policy to help even a small number of Haitians starting out in Haiti arrive in the U.S. as a humanitarian gesture. It could easily do so.

Ever since one of us (Michael) first discussed this idea in the Washington Post—alongside a related proposal by Elliott Abrams—we’ve seen three common reactions. The first common reaction is that we’re proposing replacing aid with migration policy. We do not propose anything of the kind; we simply argue that since migration is obviously such a powerful force for Haitian development, it makes little sense to entirely exclude it from the portfolio of different relief policies. That portfolio clearly must include aid. The second common reaction is that we’re proposing ‘opening the flood gates’ to all Haitians (as a white supremacist critic puts it, “Give them America”). We do not suggest anything close to that. Instead, we suggest creating a limited channel for humanitarian entry by small numbers of people fleeing natural disasters, analogous to our existing, limited, successful channel for admitting limited numbers of refugees who are fleeing wars and political persecution overseas.

The third common reaction is that it would be politically impossible to change the rules. But it turns out that there are several different ways that the U.S. could easily create a channel for limited humanitarian entry following natural disasters. We learned that from two experts on refugee law and humanitarian assistance—Royce Murray and Sarah Williamson—whom we commissioned to study the issue. They identified a range of small and sensible actions that the administration or Congress could take that would create exactly this type of humanitarian entry for limited numbers of Haitians. Their in-depth study is here, and a brief summary is here. They explain in detail each of several possible actions. We are now discussing these potential actions in meetings and workshops with several government officials and with the refugee policy community and disaster relief community here in Washington.

One of those actions would be the creation of a Family Reunification Parole Program similar to the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program. At the end of 2010 there were about 105,000 relatives of U.S. nationals in Haiti whose green-card applications had already been approved but whose priority date is not yet current. A similar number remain on the waiting list today. The Secretary of Homeland Security could grant parole to some or all of these individuals who can then wait in the United States to gain lawful permanent resident status. There would be no need to review their eligibility to enter the U.S.; they are already approved. And there would be few concerns about their initial integration into society since essentially all of them, by definition, have family sponsoring them to come.

Several members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives wrote to President Obama earlier this year asking him to order the creation of such a program. He could easily do so. So far, he has not.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.