Help Haiti? Let Haitians Stay in U.S. and Cancel Haiti's Debt

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have pledged that the U.S. will do all it can to help Haiti following the devastating earthquake. But while getting assistance into Haiti right now is extremely difficult, there are two things the Obama administration could do immediately to help Haiti that are entirely within its control. It could grant "Temporary Protected Status" to undocumented Haitians in the U.S. -- so they can stay here instead of adding to Haiti's burden, work legally, and send home money to help their relatives -- and it could support the cancellation of Haiti's debts to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, where the U.S. Treasury department has decisive influence. So far the administration has refused to move on either issue. Why the delay?

Even the Washington Post editorial board -- on foreign policy, not usually known for singing Kumbaya -- calls the administration to account on both issues:

On Temporary Protected Status for Haiti, the Post says:

More than 1 million Haitians, about a third of all adults, currently receive cash from relatives living abroad, most of them in the United States; those funds account for between a fifth and a third of Haiti's gross domestic product. Yet the Obama administration has balked at helping tens of thousands of Haitians currently here illegally by granting them temporary legal status, which would enable them to get work permits. This despite U.S. law that specifically allows the government to extend "temporary protected status" to undocumented immigrants if natural disasters or wars in their home countries make it impractical to deport them. Haitians should have received this benefit after four devastating storms struck the island in the space of four weeks in the fall of 2008. Other undocumented immigrant groups -- from Nicaragua, Honduras, Sudan and elsewhere -- have received temporary legal status; Mr. Obama should immediately extend it to Haitians so they can help their quake-stricken relatives at home.

The New York Times ("Help Haitians Help Haiti") agrees:

We wish [Obama] had added that his administration had found the courage, in this emergency, to take a basic but politically difficult step -- to grant temporary protected status to undocumented Haitians in the United States.

The Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald have also called for TPS for Haiti.

South Florida's three Cuban-American Republican members of Congress -- Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- often leaders in Congress for the most aggressive U.S. foreign policy -- have written to the Obama administration, urging the administration to grant Temporary Protected Status for Haiti:

"How much does Haiti have to suffer before Haitians in the United States are granted TPS pursuant to law?" said Lincoln Diaz-Balart Wednesday. "The reason TPS exists in the statute as an option for the president is precisely for moments such as this in Haiti."

On cancelling Haiti's debt, the Post says:

There's more the president can do, including pressing the International Monetary Fund and other international institutions and creditor nations to forgive $641 million in debt owed by Haiti.

Of course, the IMF and the World Bank are multilateral institutions, so it's not literally true that Obama can just order them to cooperate. But the U.S. controls a fifth of the voting shares of these institutions, and in practice its influence is far greater than that, because other major shareholders defer to the US. A senior IMF staffer once complained: "Why do people always say the IMF is unaccountable? We never do anything without checking with the U.S. Treasury Department."

But the IMF is currently moving in the wrong direction: instead of cancelling Haiti's debt, the IMF is trying to add to it. Jubilee USA says it's "dismayed" by an IMF plan to add $100 million to Haiti's debt burden. "Loans for disaster relief are totally inappropriate," says Neil Watkins, director of Jubilee USA.

If there were ever a time that these wrongheaded U.S. policies towards Haiti could be turned around, surely that time is now. You can weigh in on Temporary Protected Status for Haiti here and on debt cancellation for Haiti here.

UPDATE: The Obama Administration has granted TPS to Haiti.