Advocate Wants U.S. To Welcome More Haitians From Disaster

Nearly two weeks have passed since Haiti was rocked by a devastating earthquake that left an estimated 150,000 dead. The United States has already pledged $100 million in aid to relief efforts in Haiti and is allowing survivors to retreat to the U.S. with special Temporary Protective Status. Still, one immigration expert says the U.S. should do more in helping survivors. Micahel Clemens, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development, explains his "Golden Door" visa proposal, which calls on the U.S. to work harder to allow more Haitians into the U.S. Clemens is joined by Doris Meisner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Supreme Courts ruling on campaign finance is expected to dramatically change the fundraising landscape in federal elections. Well talk with House Majority Whip James Clyburn about this in just a few minutes. Thats just ahead.

But first, almost two weeks have passed since major earthquake devastated Haiti. The Haitian government says more than 150,000 are dead and many more are injured, hungry and/or homeless. In the face of this tragedy, aid dollars are pouring in from around the world.

The Obama administration has already committed $100 million to help Haiti recover and it has granted Haitians who are already in this country without proper authorization something called temporary protected status, so they can stay for up to 18 months without legal jeopardy. But increasingly, a number of voices from across the political spectrum are saying America should do even more.

Michael Clemens is one of them. Hes a research fellow at the Center for Global Development. And in the Washington Post this Sunday, Clemens argues that if the U.S. really wants to help Haiti, we should allow more Haitians to come here. And hes proposing a new kind of immigration status, a so-called golden door visa. He joins me here in our Washington studio to talk more about this.

In a few minutes, well also hear from Doris Meissner. She is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and shes a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, known as the INS. But first, we go to Michael Clemens, welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. MICHAEL CLEMENS (Research Fellow, Center for Global Development): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So, first of all, what do you mean by a golden door visa program? How would it work and why should the U.S. implement this?

Mr. CLEMENS: So, a golden door visa is a new kind visa to the United States that Im proposing the U.S. government create. It would be explicitly targeted towards low income people from places where opportunity is very scarce, Haiti among them, but other places as well. And what makes it new is that it would be directed towards creating opportunity.

So, our immigration law right now pursues three main goals, thats reunifying families, supplying U.S. employers with labor and sheltering refugees from war and persecution. But our immigration policy has always pursued another goal, a fourth goal, an unwritten goal, offering up economic opportunity.

And thats been ever since my ancestors came here in the mid-19th century from Germany, my unskilled, low income ancestors. And a golden door visa would just make explicit that goal and it would make sure that some of those opportunities, some number of them, get targeted to people who need them the most.

MARTIN: Why do you say that thats an unwritten goal of American immigration policy as opposed to a happy byproduct of American immigration policy?

Mr. CLEMENS: Well, I took the words golden door from the base of the Statue of Liberty where theres a poem by Emma Lazarus that says that Lady Liberty lifts her lamp beside the golden door. Thats something Im incredibly proud of. Thats something most Americans I think are incredibly proud of. I dont think its wrong to talk about it as a goal. I think its one of our greatest traditions.

MARTIN: I have to mention you are not the only person advancing this argument. For example, Elliot Abrams, who served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. He served in the State Department in the Reagan administration. He was an assistant national security adviser in President George W. Bushs administration, also wrote a piece over the weekend in the Washington Post. I should mention, well have links to both your article and Elliot Abrams article advancing the exact same argument.

And I think that - I dont know what your politics are, but I think everyone knows Elliot Abrams is not some sort of bleeding heart liberal, advancing just the same argument saying that if the U.S. really wants to be helpful here, that it should offer an escape hatch, if you will, particularly for Haiti in this circumstance.

Now, of course, theres the argument that the U.S., as in much of the world, is suffering from a recession right now. It is just simply not in a position to absorb more people, who are simply seeking economic opportunity, apart from other goals such as fleeing war and persecution. What do you say to that?

Mr. CLEMENS: Thats absolutely true. A lot of people are suffering right now in the U.S. from difficult economic conditions. The first thing I want to point out is that immigrants did not cause the economic crisis that were going through. It originated in the financial sector. It became a crisis in the real sector. Were starting to pull out of it now but for a lot of people its going to continue to be a big problem in the short term. The difficulty of...

MARTIN: I guess the question is, why is this in the U.S. interest to offer this kind of opportunity? Apart from the interest of the persons who might take advantage of it, who are coming, who would wish to come here, why is it in the interest of the American people to offer this kind of opportunity at this point in time?

Mr. CLEMENS: So, visas for lower skilled immigrants, which is what were talking about here, were talking about creating visas for people, helps U.S. workers. And I want to explain, I want to take some time to talk about why that is, because its something that is not obvious to many people. Right now in this country, we have millions and millions of undocumented workers, people who are hard working every day, very hardworking, and dont have legal status.

Now, thats not good for U.S. workers. Its not good for them in good times and its especially bad for them in bad times. Its not good for U.S. workers to have a very large group of undocumented workers. Why? Because people without legal rights have no bargaining power. Wages get bid down, working conditions get bid down and they bid down for everyone. Now if you want to see what would happen if we try to stop people from coming, you can look at the situation we have today. People on the frontlines understand that its very, very difficult to stop people from coming.

MARTIN: Im going to bring in another voice now.

Mr. CLEMENS: Sure, sure.

MARTIN: Im going to bring in Doris Meissner. Shes a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. Shes a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was at one time known as INS. Now, of course, its part of the Department of Homeland Security, its called something else, IC. But she is with us now. Welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Senior Fellow, Migration Policy Institute): Thank you.

MARTIN: Is there a precedent for what Michael Clemens is advancing here, something which would explicitly offer a U.S. visa to people who were coming here explicitly for economic opportunity? And lets just take the limited case of Haiti right now, which is by all accounts suffering from a terrible tragedy. Is there any precedent for this in our history?

Ms. MEISSNER: Well, I think it is correct say that people have come to the United States throughout our history in order to take advantage of opportunity. Almost all of our immigration is - offers people and families the chance over time to have a better future for their children.

I think what is being, what Michael is arguing in this particular situation with Haiti is that people who work in the United States from very poor countries like Haiti and Mexico send a lot of money back to their families and that helps their families in those poor countries.

That is well known, and remittances are an important element of the migration equation between countries. But whether we should set up a separate visa simply for low income people, I think in the case of Haiti right now, is probably not really feasible and overlooks how many Haitians already are in the United States.

MARTIN: What about the argument that, for example, Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security said that attempting to leave Haiti now will only bring more hardship to the Haitian people and the nation. Do you agree with her assessment?

Ms. MEISSNER: Well, I think that we need to understand what the picture is with Haitians in the United States already. One in 20 Haitians are already in the United States. Haiti has a population of about nine million and more than half a million people born in Haiti live, foreign born in the United States, most of them in a legal status of one sort or another. So, they are here, they are contributing, they are sending -many of them send money back to Haiti.

I think the administration - and, in fact, the amount of money that goes back to Haiti in the form of remittances is larger by a substantial proportion than the foreign aid from all countries.

MARTIN: Which is the argument that some are arguing about why more Haitians should come here, so that theyre in a better position to support reconstruction efforts back home. You may have formed an opinion about this to this point. And so if that is the case, I certainly accept that, but do you have an opinion about whether that is a reasonable argument to allow more Haitians to come here right now in the face of this particular tragedy?

Ms. MEISSNER: Well, I think that you have to, we are bringing more Haitians here. In the first place, we are allowing Haitians who are already in the United States who dont have any legal status to stay for at least 18 months. And I think theres every reason to believe that that would be renewed, probably numerous times given what we know of the reconstruction challenge is going to be in Haiti. I think its going to be an unprecedented challenge.

The State Department looks as though its been pretty generous in giving visas to people who have family members in the United States to help bring their children here and so on, who are already U.S. citizens. Theyve accelerated orphans that are in the adoption process from coming. I think there is a further step that they could take, and that is that there are large numbers of Haitians who already have visas approved to immigrate to the United States because, by and large, they have family in the United States. They could very much fast track and accelerate that movement of Haitians to the United States.

But I think that you have to be very careful here about remittances and development because if for some reason we get to thinking that the remittances, the money that people pay to their families in Haiti when theyre working in United States is an anyway a substitute for development, it is not. And its certainly is not in the case of this kind of a massive reconstruction effort.

MARTIN: And we dont have time to dig into, I think, perhaps the most sensitive aspect of this or one of the more sensitive aspect of this conversation, which is race. I mean, there are those who argue that Haitians historically have faced barriers of immigration that other immigrants in similar circumstances, but of a different demographic profile have not faced. So, we dont have time to really thoroughly unpack that. So, I appreciate your participation, Doris Meissner.

But, Michael Clemens, I want to give you the last word and Im going to press you on this question of why people in this country right now who believe themselves to be suffering economically should welcome an additional group of people even if they are suffering greatly?

Mr. CLEMENS: Thanks, Michel. I just want to clarify that Im not proposing that everybody whos suffering right now in Haiti get to come here. Im talking about why Haitians are poor. And the simple fact is that most Haitians who have ever gotten out of extreme poverty did it by leaving. So, the alternative isnt that somehow theres going to be an efflorescence of development in Haiti. Leaving Haiti has been the best alternative for people and offering them opportunity is just building on that to help them better their life.

MARTIN: Michael Clemens is a research fellow at the Center for Global Development. Well have a link to his Washington Post commentary on our Web site, just go to npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE. I thank you for being here. I also thank Doris Meissner. Shes a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Service. She joined us by phone from her office in Washington. I thank you also.

Mr. CLEMENS: Thank you.

Ms. MEISSNER: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Coming up, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, hes with us next. Please stay with us. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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