Congressional Black Caucus Wants Long-Term U.S. Support For Haiti

President Obama recently pledged full support to Haiti in the aftermath of a devastating magnitude-7 earthquake. Donna Christensen, the U.S. congressional delegate to the Virgin Islands and a licensed physician, talks about the White House response and relief concerns held by the Congressional Black Caucus, of which she is a member. Rep. Christiansen explains her desire that U.S. support to the region will be long term.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We turn now to the U.S. response to the earthquake in Haiti. Yesterday, President Obama pledged his administration's full support for the recovery.

President BARACK OBAMA: Despite the fact that we are experiencing tough times here at home, I would encourage those Americans who want to support the urgent humanitarian efforts to go to whitehouse.gov, where you can learn how to contribute. We must be prepared for difficult hours and days ahead, as we learn about the scope of the tragedy. We will keep the victims and their families in our prayers. We will be resolute in our response, and I pledge to the people of Haiti that you will have a friend and partner in the United States of America today and going forward.

MARTIN: I'm joined now by Congressional Delegate Donna Christensen. She represents the U.S. Virgin Islands. She has been a leading voice on development for the Caribbean, and she's here to talk about the next steps and our government's efforts to get relief quickly. She's also a physician. I welcome her now by phone. Congresswoman, thank you for joining us.

Representative DONNA CHRISTENSEN (Democrat, United States Virgin Islands): Thank you.

MARTIN: President Obama pledged full support to helping Haiti recover. What does that mean, exactly? And I'm asking because I've reviewed the amounts of assistance provided by the government following recent natural disasters. Following the floods in 2004, the U.S. provided about $600,000 in aid. Hurricane Jeanne hit later that year. The U.S. provided about a million-and-a-half dollars in aid. Now, I don't want to play a numbers game, but those are not large amounts of aid. So I'm wondering what is being contemplated this time.

Rep. CHRISTENSEN: Well, the president was not specific, except to say that he would give full aid, and for the long term. Now, we in the Congressional Black Caucus had about three meetings yesterday just on Haiti. And we feel that part of our role is going to be pushing the envelope and making sure that the aid that is given is adequate and that we stay there for the long term. We have a history of leaving before it's over, also. So we feel that that's a part of our responsibility as the CBC.

MARTIN: After previous natural disasters, when you spoke of family ties, we've seen increases in the number of Haitians trying to leave the island. Should the U.S. relax immigration standards for Haitians in the wake of this event?

Rep. CHRISTENSEN: I think we should use this opportunity to bring some equity to some of our policies regarding immigration with Haiti. I think we ought to use this opportunity to do something that many of us in the Congressional Black Caucus have been pressing for years, which is the temporary protective status for Haiti. We would like to see - use this opportunity to improve and bring some equity and justice to some of the policies that have not been equitable or just.

MARTIN: I mentioned earlier that you are a physician. What do you think are the immediate challenges? What comes to your mind when you think about what is going on there and what is most needed?

Rep. CHRISTENSEN: I've been on Congress now for - this my 14th year I'm beginning, and from my first year, I started to traveling there and was there last year and visited hospitals. I've visited health centers. And right now, my first concern is getting everybody out of that rubble who is still alive. And there are going to be significant challenges because there will be many who will not survive this.

The United States Department of Defense has temporary morgues that they can set up. They need to set those up and make sure that the bodies are given the proper treatment. There's a lot of grief. There's going to be a lot of panic and keeping the population calm and feeling secure that their needs are going to be taken care of is very important. The hospital ship Mercy should be there. That is going to be a big need, because there are many injuries.

There are many injuries. We see people waiting with broken limbs, with makeshift bandages to stop bleeding. There's a lot of need, but we do have to do all we can and search and rescue right now, because we're at the last hours of time where we can find people who may have survived, even though they're still trapped. And then we need to take care of the sick and prevent disease.

MARTIN: It's hard to watch this from a distance, isn't it?

Rep. CHRISTENSEN: It's very difficult. It's very difficult and especially, I mean, I can only imagine Haitians who live in this country or other countries looking back and not being able to reach out or make contact. My heart goes out to them. For those of us who know Haiti and have developed a relationship with Haiti, it is very painful to watch. And as bad as we feel and as powerless as we might feel, we can do what we can do right now, which is to send funds. And there are several ways that that can be done easily.

MARTIN: We'll have that information on our site. USAID have some specific recommendations, and so does the Red Cross.

Rep. CHRISTENSEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I'm sure you're office does, as well. Finally, before I let you go - and I appreciate your taking the time - there was an announcement last night, a joint statement from President Obama, Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid about the health care reform effort. They say that they've made significant progress in bridging the remaining gaps between the two health insurance reform bills. What does that mean? What are you being told?

Rep. CHRISTENSEN: Well, we'll probably be told today, because we start our retreat in earnest today. But that should mean to us that the goals that the speaker has set out of affordability for the middle class, accountability for the insurance companies and access for Americans to health care have been met, and that we lower the cost.

We had some very big concerns about the exchange - the Senate having state exchanges and the House wanting to insist on a national exchange. That's the only way they were going to be able to provide health care at lower cost and spread the risks. That would mean to me that they've reached some agreement on the taxing of Cadillac plans - that's a big area of this agreement between the House and Senate - and that the abortion issue has been resolved. Significant progress would mean bridging those gaps.

MARTIN: Donna Christensen is a congressional delegate. She represents the U.S. Virgin Islands. She joins us via phone from her office on Capitol Hill. Congresswoman, thank you so much speaking with us.

Rep. CHRISTENSEN: You're welcome. Thank you.

MARTIN: More on Haiti from TELL ME MORE. Please stay with us.

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