By Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald (MCT)
MIAMI — Thousands of Haitians who have been waiting to reunite with U.S. citizens and lawful permanent resident family members in the United States will now have a chance to do so — up to two years before their immigrant visa for a green card may be issued.
Beginning next year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will implement a Haitian Family Reunification Parole (HFRP) Program to expedite family reunification for eligible Haitian family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are living in Haiti and have already been approved for a family-based immigrant visa.
The major policy shift announced Friday comes nearly three months before the fifth anniversary of Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, which launched a campaign by immigration and Haitian advocates to speed up family reunification for Haitians, some of whom have been waiting as long as 12 years in the immigration pipeline.
But after 80 pieces of support, including letters signed by the entire South Florida congressional delegation and 17 editorials in nearly a dozen major U.S. newspapers, some had given up hope that such a program would happen.
“There have been more political letters than I can count,” said Steve Forrester, who has led the effort as immigration policy coordinator for the nonprofit Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Forrester hailed the announcement, although it doesn’t cover immediately the approximately 100,000 Haitians whose I-130 visas have already been approved for a potential green card.
Under the Haitian Family Reunification Parole program, Haitians authorized parole will be allowed to enter the United States and apply for work permits but will not receive permanent resident status any earlier than when their priority date is due.
“It’s a good first step in the right direction and we’re pleased and gratified that they have finally done something helpful,” Forrester said. “This isn’t a gift. They did this because of how Haiti is. This will save lives and reunite families; and hopefully generate some remittances for Haitians in need.”
But Forrester and others say that all will depend on how quickly the program is implemented. The implementation date has not been decided yet, and DHS on Friday could not say how many people would be eligible to come to the United States in the first year.
Marleine Bastien, executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami/Haitian Women of Miami, said while the program is limited in scope, activists remain grateful to the Obama administration for hearing their collective voices.
“After five long years of organizing locally and nationally, we are elated by the Obama administration’s decision to create the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program. But we understand that the plan will only cover those who are only two years away form their priority date,” she said. “It is our estimation that we are talking about a little over 5,000 people.”
“At least we have our foot in the door. But we will continue to work for the rest of the group who are qualified, to get them the opportunity to be reunited with their family members because they have been waited for so long,” she added.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security who had met with Haitian community activists over the years about the issue, said the parole program promotes a fundamental underlying goal of the U.S. immigration system, family reunification.
It also addresses another concern of the United States, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Haiti since the earthquake.
“The rebuilding and development of a safe and economically strong Haiti is a priority for the United States,” Mayorkas said, adding that the parole program “also supports broader U.S. goals for Haiti’s reconstruction and development by providing the opportunity for certain eligible Haitians to safely and legally immigrate sooner to the United States.”
With the announcement, immigration officials are also strongly discouraging Haitians from taking to the high seas in dangerous voyages to reach the United States.
“Such individuals will not qualify for the HFRP program and if located at sea may be returned to Haiti,” Mayorkas said.
AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm