The environmental, social, and political conditions in Haiti have long prompted congressional interest in U.S. policy on Haitian migrants, particularly those attempting to reach the United States by boat. While some observers assert that such arrivals by Haitians are a breach in border security, others maintain that these Haitians are asylum seekers following a decades old practice of Haitians coming by boat without legal immigration documents. Migrant interdiction and mandatory detention are key components of U.S. policy toward Haitian migrants, but human rights advocates express concern that Haitians are not afforded the same treatment as other asylum seekers.

The devastation caused last year by the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti led Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians in the United States at the time of the earthquake. The scale of humanitarian crisis—estimated thousands of Haitians dead and collapse of the infrastructure in the capital city of Port au Prince—resulted in this TPS announcement. On May 17, 2011, Secretary Napolitano re-designated TPS for Haitians through January 22, 2013. The extension also enables eligible individuals who arrived up to one year after the earthquake in Haiti to receive TPS.

Secretary Napolitano gave humanitarian parole to Haitian children who were legally confirmed as orphans eligible for intercountry adoption by the government of Haiti and who were in the process of being adopted by U.S. residents prior to the earthquake. P.L. 111-293, the Help HAITI Act of 2010, authorizes the DHS Secretary to adjust to legal permanent residence (LPR) status those Haitian orphans who were granted parole from January 18, 2010, through April 15, 2010. Those Haitians who are deemed Cuban-Haitian Entrants are among the subset of foreign nationals who are eligible for federal benefits and cash assistance.

Those Haitians who are newly arriving legal permanent residents, however, are barred from the major federal benefits and cash assistance for the first five years after entry. The Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2010 (H.R. 4899, P.L. 111-212), includes funding to cover additional costs for federal benefits and cash assistance resulting from Haitian evacuees.

According to the U.S. Department of State (DOS), there were 54,716 Haitians who had approved petitions to immigrate to the United States at the time of the earthquake and who were waiting for visas to become available. Advocates for Haitians continue to request that Secretary Napolitano give humanitarian parole to those Haitians with approved petitions for visas. Proponents of expediting the admission of Haitians with family in the United States maintain that it would relieve at least some of the humanitarian burden in Haiti and would increase the remittances sent back to Haiti to provide critical help as the nation tries to rebuild. Those opposed to expediting the admission of Haitians assert that it would not be in the national interest, nor would it be fair to other foreign nationals waiting to reunite with their families.

More broadly, there are concerns that the crisis conditions in Haiti—notably, the outbreak of cholera and the return of deposed dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier—may trigger mass migration from the island. DHS agencies that would address a potential mass migration include the U.S. Coast Guard (interdiction); Customs and Border Protection (apprehensions and inspections); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (detention and removal); and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (credible fear determinations). The balancing of DHS’s border security responsibilities during a humanitarian crisis poses a challenge.

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