Displaced Haitians Find Shelter Abroad

The U.S. government issued temporary protected status to Haitians who arrived before the earthquake hit earlier this month. The West African nation of Senegal has offered land to Haitian refugees. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Nicole Lee, president of TransAfrica Forum, about Haiti's refugee migration.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The United States is already home to roughly half a million Haitian immigrants, according to census estimates. The U.S. government issued Temporary Protected Status to Haitians who arrived before the earthquake hit earlier this month. And the West African nation of Senegal has offered land to Haitian refugees.

Nicole Lee is president of the advocacy group TransAfrica Forum. She also lived and worked in Haiti. And she joins us in our Washington studio. Nice to meet you.

Ms. NICOLE LEE (President, TransAfrica Forum): Thank you.

HANSEN: At the moment, attention is focused still largely on earthquake relief and the rebuilding effort. But you and other policy experts say the idea of relocation should be considered as well. Why?

Ms. LEE: Well, I certainly think that most Haitians want to stay in Haiti if they can - if they can stay and lead reasonably comfortable lives. But certainly we will see migration and relocation as a factor in the Haitian history and current situation in Haiti.

HANSEN: So where would Haitians likely go?

Ms. LEE: Well, I mean, there are several places where they probably won't go. There's been efforts by some African governments to provide land to Haitians. And most likely the African option is not something that Haitians will take up. But certainly the United States, Haitians have a long, long history of migrating to Canada. And certainly the Caribbean would be another option.

HANSEN: The Caribbean, that seems like a logical choice because the island nations are in closer proximity.

Ms. LEE: Well, yes. But one of the challenges that they face in the Caribbean is a bit of xenophobia. And we have seen that in recent years, that many Caribbean nations have discouraged Haitians from coming because of xenophobic acts of violence within their countries. And so that is also a concern and a challenge.

HANSEN: And then there's language barriers. And there's even, I mean, there's tension between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. And they pretty much occupy the same island.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. In some ways it's unfortunate for Haiti because they're in the middle of an English-speaking Caribbean and certainly in a Spanish-speaking Latin American world. And so language is always an issue. Skin color also has been a problem and an issue. And so it's important for governments in the Caribbean, governments in Latin America, as they're making offers for Haitians to come to their country, it's also important that they ensure that they prep their citizenry. And they put the expectations pretty high in terms of how Haitians should be welcomed within those communities.

HANSEN: The Obama administration has already suspended Haitian deportations, extended the temporary legal status of Haitians who were here before the earthquake. Do you consider that response sufficient?

Ms. LEE: No. No, I don't. And I think it's important for people to know that Temporary Protected Status is not actually a migration option. It is merely just a stay. It does not allow for others to come after the earthquake. So it's important to note that it does not allow people to really make lives here in the United States. And what we really need to be talking about is comprehensive immigration reform that actually includes Haiti as a special case.

HANSEN: You're headed back to Haiti...

Ms. LEE: I am.

HANSEN: ...next week. What do you expect to find?

Ms. LEE: You know, I'm not sure, frankly. Certainly I'm trying to prepare myself. Port-au-Prince is no longer my Port-au-Prince. Most of the buildings that I remember are no longer standing. And so, certainly visually that's going to be pretty shocking.

HANSEN: Do you have family there?

Ms. LEE: You know, I actually married into a Haitian family. So I have a Haitian-American husband and I have now a Haitian-American child. I do have in-laws that are still there and I am certainly going to be looking for them and hopefully providing something for them while I'm there. Although, you know, what one person can do or one family can do in the midst of the devastation is kind of hard to really comprehend. But certainly I'm looking forward to hugging them and seeing for myself that they're all right.

HANSEN: Nicole Lee is the president of TransAfrica Forum. She joined us here in the studio. Thanks very much.

Ms. LEE: Thank you.

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