The 'Catch 22' for Haitian refugees

Thursday, Jan. 12, 2011 marked the one year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti. The Haitian government reported that an estimated 230,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and 1.5 million people were left homeless by the quake. As Haiti still struggles to recover from the earthquake, nearly 1million continue to live in tent cities while more than 3,600 people have died from cholera.

Here at Catholic Charities, we have worked from the time we first heard news of the earthquake to respond to the needs of the Haitian community in Boston, the third largest Haitian community in the United States. Our work began immediately as we participated in efforts to communicate important and accurate information about the earthquake and its aftermath.

We grieved with local families, including members of our own staff, who suffered tremendous losses; often whole families perished as buildings collapsed. Catholic Charities continues to provide counseling services to those still coming to terms with their losses.

In addition to grief and trauma counseling, we developed and continue to provide services to meet the immediate and long term needs of Haitian families who emigrated to Boston in the days and weeks following the disaster. Services include those that meet basic needs including food and clothing, English Language classes and importantly, the legal immigration consultation services provided by our Refugee and Immigration Services.

Sadly, most who traveled to Boston from Haiti came with a government-granted temporary tourist visa in the hope that they could return to a rebuilt Haiti, but have found that that is now not possible. Consequently, much of our work with these families has been devoted to stabilizing living situations here, helping "hosting" friends and families with the unexpected financial burdens associated with long term stays. The burden is made more intractable as those Haitians here post-earthquake are not able to work.

However, as Marjean Perhot, Director of Catholic Charities' Refugee and Immigration Services explains: "maintaining legal status after the initial six months is difficult, the government may consider extension of tourist visas for another six months for a $290 fee, but without the ability to work, immigrants must often borrow from family and community members to fund an extension. These Haitians may also consider an appeal for Deferred Action; however, this benefit is used sparingly by the U.S. government and an applicant must prove that her situation is unique and more dire than all others."

Thus, Haitian families are caught in a real "Catch 22." Parents are forced to ask: do I take my children back to Haiti, where circumstances are so desperate, or do I stay, hoping that the U.S. government will approve my visa extension request, while continuing to rely upon the generosity of friends, family and the community at large to care for us because I cannot legally work?

Catholic Charities staff continues its advocacy efforts on behalf of the more than 400 Haitians who have come to rely on us for support. Our hope is that the U.S. government will make the administrative decisions necessary to help Haitians remain temporarily and legally in the U.S., thus allowing them the opportunity to work as Haiti rebuilds.

Many ask, what can I do to help? Here are two ways. We need your voice to be heard: ask our legislators in Washington to allow Haitians who arrived on visitor visas after the earthquake to legally stay on a temporary basis with permission to work. We also need your continued prayers: for the expedited rebuilding of Haiti, for humane immigration policies towards Haitians and for the healing of the physical and emotion wounds caused by the earthquake.

Debbie Rambo is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.