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Haiti devastation could speed immigration debate

January 13, 2010 | 10:08 am

Destruction in Haiti after January 12, 2010 earthquake
As Haiti reels from a devastating earthquake that flattened buildings and left thousands of people trapped under rubble, three Republicans from Florida are calling on President Obama to do what President Bush never did -- grant temporary protected status to undocumented Haitians living in the U.S.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote a letter to Obama arguing that "the combined destruction from today's catastrophic earthquake and the previous storms clearly makes forced repatriation of Haitians hazardous to their safety at this time...We strongly believe that it is for such a situation that Congress created TPS."

Even Broward Democrat Alcee Hastings added his name to the effort, calling it "not only immoral, but irresponsible'' to send the illegal Haitians back home.

The Obama administration has said that it wants to review the issue of the Haitians as part of a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. Coming to the aid of the mostly Catholic country are some advocacy groups with political punch, including the Catholic Church.

In February, Obama's Department of Homeland Security went ahead with the deportation of 30,000 Haitians first ordered up by the Bush administration. In response, Haiti stopped issuing travel documents for them, leaving some 600 Haitians in detention centers. In June, the Washington Post did a series on substandard medical care provided to the detainees.

By July, Obama said he was "very sympathetic" to the plight of the Haitians, but by October the advocacy groups were publicly expressing their unhappiness. "I feel they are stringing us along, and we are in an awkward position," said Randolph McGrorty, chief executive of Catholic Charities Legal Services. "Do we allow them to string us along because they are our allies or do we start calling them on the carpet for it?"

Now, given the utter destruction of the country's already-limited infrastructure, political pressure is likely to grow even further on the administration to let the illegals stay.

Mindful that immigration is a radioactive issue, Florida politicians are already trying to sell the policy to the public by arguing that the shift would actually help the U.S. economy. "By granting them TPS, Haitians currently in the United States would be able to legally work and contribute to their country's recovery,” Hastings said.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: A man stands amid rubble after Tuesday's earthquake in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Credit: Associated Press

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