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The CGD initiative Migration as a Tool for Disaster Recovery highlights the tremendous potential of migration policy as one component of post-disaster relief efforts in the developing world. CGD has identified several policy options that generate big benefits for disaster relief efforts with small and commonsense tweaks to the current rules governing immigration. CGD has discussed these options with senior U.S. policymakers involved in Haiti and Congress. There are lots of questions. We have answers.
Migration can play an important role in complementing post-disaster relief and recovery efforts to rebuild the economy of a disaster-stricken country.
In developing countries like Haiti, migration has lifted more Haitians out of poverty than aid dollars, foreign investment, and trade preferences combined.
Remittances flowing back to Haiti—estimated at over $2 billion every year, are nearly double the total one-time U.S. pledge to Haiti at the 2010 Haiti Donor Conference.
Remittances go directly to the pockets of needy families. Almost all of that is spent in Haiti, where it generates demand for services and goods and grows the whole economy.
Virtually no legal channels have been made available to Haitians to leave Haiti because of the disaster. Nearly 75 percent of all Haitians who leave Haiti rely on a close family member in the United States petitioning for them, though the wait can take four to 11 years. If a Haitian is financially secure enough to obtain a visitor visa, they can seek asylum once in the United States, but only because of persecution feared in Haiti, not because of the earthquake’s devastation. Legal channels for employment-based migration are closed to the vast majority of Haitians.
The State Department and Homeland Security can make Haiti eligible for America’s largest employment-based temporary visa program, the H-2 visa. All Haitians are now ineligible.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can use parole discretion to allow a limited number of Haitians who have already proven a close family relationship to a U.S. Citizen or permanent resident to enter the United States to work and reunite with their families, rather than spend the 4-to-11-year wait for a visa in Haiti apart from their loved ones.
Congress can establish a “humanitarian track” in the U.S. refugee resettlement program to offer admission to limited numbers of people affected by a disaster. The Refugee Protection Act of 2010 would give the Administration more discretion to admit “non-refugees” to the program.
Congress can update the filing deadline of the LIFE Act, which allows Legal Permanent Residents who have filed a family-based petition under a 2A preference category for a spouse or child to bring those beneficiaries to the United States if the petition has been pending for three years and a visa number has not yet become available. The filing deadline originally set by Congress was for visas approved on or before December 21, 2000 prior to the Haiti earthquake. The Haiti Emergency Life Protection Act of 2010 sought to update the filing date but was not considered in committee.
In discussing these proposals with top U.S. policymakers, we have received a number of questions:
Q - Wouldn’t we be overwhelmed if we just open the doors and let in millions of Haitians?
A - CGD neither discusses nor recommends “opening the gates” to all disaster victims. It provides a menu of options limited to small numbers of people, options that are “numbers neutral” because the recommended policy changes are controlled forms of entry that do not increase overall migration. They neither create nor contemplate creating an unlimited “right” to post-disaster migration.
Q -How can you think of letting in more immigrants when there are so many unemployed Americans?
A – The above proposals are about targeting existing migration slots to people who need them the most, not about expanding the number of those slots. Despite the fact that unemployment hovers just around 9 percent for the economy as a whole, there are sectors of the U.S. economy where American employers are having trouble filling positions, as evidenced by the labor shortage for difficult agricultural jobs in last summer’s harvest. For many Haitian workers and their families, those very jobs are the economic opportunity of a lifetime.
Q - How can immigration be the solution to poverty when there are so many poor people in the world?
A - Migration alone will not fix poverty, nor is migration the answer for all Haitians. But is zero really the right number? The United States is not factoring the positive economic realities of migration into its responses to Haiti, nor is there any systematic way to handle post-disaster migrants in current U.S. immigration law. Migration should be one aspect of post-disaster relief efforts. It currently is not.
Q - Isn't building the economy of Haiti the best way to help? Letting people leave is not a real solution.
A - Foreign aid has not reduced poverty or raised living standards in Haiti. Over the past 30 years, Haiti has received many billions of dollars in aid and generous trade preferences. But over that same period, average real income in Haiti has not only failed to rise, it has fallen by half—and that was before the earthquake. For most people, and for the foreseeable future, staying in Haiti means remaining in extreme poverty. Allowing people to move raises their living standards almost immediately, resulting in additional capital flows from remittances.
Q – But the United States is committed to rebuilding the economy of Haiti. How is migration in the U.S. interest?
A – Destitution in America’s neighbors is in no one’s interest. The U.S. strategy for rebuilding the Haitian economy only addresses certain parts of the country and will only create jobs for a small number of people. The United States should recognize that migration is a powerful tool for poverty reduction and reduce the barriers for legal entry to the United States for a limited number of people. This is part of normalizing bilateral relations with Haiti.
Q - How do you propose to prioritize the Haitians who come to the United States?
A - The United States currently determines the number of immigrants and refugees it accepts into the country. This requires a practical mechanism to choose who gets in, and those mechanisms exist for all current modes of entry. People affected by natural disaster can be considered under criteria similar to those used for refugees. The use of parole can be prioritized through existing immigration preference categories based on family relationships. Parole criteria could also be expanded to include vulnerability since the earthquake, such as prioritizing people living in camps. Criteria for prioritizing the recipients of H-2A and H-2B employment visas already exist. Haiti would just need to be made eligible.
Q - If we let even more Haitians leave, won’t many of the smartest and best-educated Haitians leave Haiti? Won’t we create a “brain drain” that hurts Haiti?
A – The policy options focus on unskilled laborers whose job opportunities and outlook have been devastated, or on family members who have already petitioned for U.S. residency and are therefore highly likely to leave anyway. Even in the next five to 10 years, it is unlikely that Haiti will be able to employ all those unskilled workers seeking a job in Haiti. It makes sense to jump-start the economic recovery process by giving these individuals a chance to work in the United States—where we need the labor—and send remittances back home, which then contribute to the Haitian economy. Allowing small numbers of people to leave a country if they choose is very different from encouraging people to leave.
Q - Don’t low-skill immigrants free-ride on our public services and take our tax dollars?
A - Sending aid to Haiti certainly takes large amounts of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars. Allowing a limited number of immigrants into the U.S. does not. No immigrant may benefit from Social Security until he or she has worked for a minimum of 10 years in the U.S. Studies in the American Economic Reviewshow that taxes from immigrant labor contribute roughly what they take out of social security and other government programs.
Q - We already gave Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians? Why should we do more for Haiti?
A – The initial TPS designation—a protection against deportation—benefited those Haitians already present in the United States before the earthquake occurred. A re-designation of TPS allowed those Haitians who entered the United States in the year following the earthquake to register. Because there was no formal way to come to the United States after the earthquake, only a small number of evacuated medical cases and Haitians repatriated with U.S. citizen family members are eligible. No one in Haiti at the time of the earthquake who stayed in Haiti can arrive today and apply for TPS.