Would Advanced Immigrant Visas for 55,000 Haitians Help Haiti?

By David North on January 12, 2011

A Washington Post editorial of a few days ago urged the Obama Administration to let 55,000 Haitian immigrants come to the U.S. despite the fact that they would be jumping the visa-backlog queues and numerical ceilings established by Congress.

There are three sets of considerations here: 1) would this be good for the individuals involved? 2) what consequences would be imposed on the U.S.? and 3) would it be good for Haiti?

The first question is the easiest to answer. Yes, it would probably be a boon to most of the 55,000 individuals to come to the U.S., but that's only one factor we should consider. Having once spent a few days in that country, which was terribly depressed and terribly depressing then even without an earthquake and the threat of a cholera epidemic, I feel sure that living in even the most grim American slum is better than living in Haiti – or would be for most of the 55,000 queue jumpers.

The second question is more complex. Although the Post ignores this variable, there are sound reasons why there are numerical limits on would-be immigrants to the U.S. (The future immigrants now in Haiti, by definition, do not belong to categories which permit unlimited migration – most of those waiting in line are relatives of people in the U.S., but they are not immediate relatives of citizens, nor are they refugees.)

If these 55,000 Haitians were the only people in this situation, it might be different, but perhaps 50 percent of the world's population would like to come to the U.S., and a lot of them have relatives here. And because we cannot absorb as many immigrants (legal and illegal) as we are now receiving, Congress puts numerical ceilings on most flows of immigrants. There is a limit to what our nation's economy, our country's infrastructure, and our environment can absorb and, generally speaking, we should be reducing our intake, not expanding it. This is a hard truth for all of us, and for the 55,000.

Further, chances are the 55,000 would be extra immigrants. Governments rarely reduce other flows to keep overall admissions at the same level. Bear in mind that most of the population increase in the U.S. comes from the arrival of migrants, and births to migrants. And our population grew by 27 million in the last ten years!

The third question was not explored thoroughly by the Post, and that is, would such a move help Haiti? I wonder. First, though the 55,000 are, by our standards, mostly poor people, they are probably a much luckier, more prosperous, and probably better educated than most in Haiti. If you are really, really poor you do not have relatives who have managed to get to the U.S. and secured either green card or citizen status.

So, in broad terms, this is probably a group of people more able to help Haiti out of its current mess than a cross-section of the rest of the population.

Further, since this is a population that has American relatives, it is, again in all likelihood, a group of people that is attracting a flow of money from those relatives to Haiti. Do we want to cut off that flow of funds?

In summary, yes, the individual would be helped; no, this nation would not be helped; and it is not at all clear that such an exodus would be that helpful to Haiti.

Further, it is always much more cost-effective to mount relief and reconstruction efforts in Haiti, and other devastated areas, than it is to sort out a small minority of the people in difficulty by bringing them to another nation.

We certainly should be maintaining our assistance programs in Haiti, so that all the people of that nation can move forward, and not arbitrarily select 55,000 of them for very special treatment.