U.S. urged to fast-track visas for Haitians

Members of the U.S. Congress are joining Haitian-American community leaders to push the Obama administration to help more Haitians get visas to live and work in the U.S.

Members of the U.S. Congress are joining Haitian-American community leaders to push the Obama administration to help more Haitians get visas to live and work in the U.S.

They want to fast-track visas for tens of thousands of Haitians whose petitions to join relatives in this country already have been approved.

A cap on the number of visas that the U.S. grants each year, though, means it can take a decade for a visa to be issued.

It's estimated that more than 100,000 Haitians are on the waiting list for visas to join their families in the U.S., and more than 15,000 of them are the spouses and children of U.S. citizens, according to the Dec. 22 letter sent by eight members of Florida's congressional delegation to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio both signed, as did six U.S. representatives, including Democrat Frederica Wilson, whose Miami district represents more Haitians than any other in Congress, and Republican Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The push to issue more visas comes as the two-year anniversary of Haiti's massive earthquake approaches. The quake that struck Jan. 12, 2010, killed a government-estimated 316,000 people and devastated the Caribbean country's capital.

"As a new Haitian government takes shape, and as the country still grapples with cholera and post-earthquake reconstruction, additional help is needed," reads the letter released by Wilson's office late Thursday.

Some members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, including U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick sent similar messages to Napolitano in the fall.

They urged the administration to parole Haitians waiting for the family-based visas into the U.S., as thousands of Cubans approved to join relatives in the U.S. have been paroled into the country under the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program created in 2007.

More than $2 billion has been spent on recovery efforts in Haiti, though Haitians have seen little rebuilding as reconstruction projects have gotten snagged in the country's political disputes.

Roughly a half-million Haitians are still living in densely crowded tent camps.

A cholera epidemic that began after the earthquake has killed an additional 7,000 Haitians and sickened another 515,000. Supporters of boosting Haitian immigration say that the money Haitians could earn in the U.S. would be vital to Haiti's recovery.

Haitians abroad send home more than $1 billion each year to support family and friends in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

Proposal for low-skilled temporary work visas

The Florida representatives also asked that certain low-skilled, temporary worker visas be extended to Haiti. Haiti is currently excluded from the H-2A and H-2B visa programs that allow U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals into the country for temporary jobs.

More than 50 countries worldwide participate in those visa programs, including the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispanola with Haiti.

"Since remittances undoubtedly play such a huge role in Haiti's reconstruction and stabilization efforts, it is critically important that we explore additional ways to help Haitians," the Florida representatives wrote.

"Low-skilled, temporary employment seems to be one way in which a limited number of Haitians may come to the United States, reunite with their families, help build the U.S. economy, and, most importantly, assist Haiti in its reconstruction through repatriated skills and capital."

Messages left for spokesmen at the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department were not immediately returned Friday.

The U.S. government granted temporary protected status for Haitians who were living in this country before Jan. 12, 2011.

The protected status allows immigrants from a handful of countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters to live and work in the U.S. for a limited period of time.