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Opinion: Let Haitians come to the US

The best way to help Haiti rebuild is through immigration.

A woman exits a tent that was erected over the remains of a house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Feb. 24, 2010. Haiti's government and its foreign relief partners plan to start "decompressing" earthquake-stricken Port-au-Prince by clearing rubble to allow displaced families to return home or be temporarily resettled, Haitian and U.N. officials said. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — How can America best help the survivors of Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake?

Americans have already responded to the agony with enormous generosity by sending tax dollars through government aid and private donations through church groups and charities. Medical teams gone to help and across the country community drives have been coordinated to provide foodstuffs, water sanitation kits and materials for shelter to the people of Haiti.

But few Americans have considered offering perhaps the most powerful tool the country has to help Haitians, the tool that has done by far the most to lift Haitians out of poverty in the past. That is, allowing them visas to come to the United States.

Immigration to the United States as an aid policy?


It is by far the most effective and affordable way for Americans to help Haitians.

Migration to the U.S. has raised far more Haitians out of poverty, over recent decades, than anything that has happened inside Haiti. While living standards in Haiti have declined by half over the last 30 years, living standards for those who have left Haiti for the U.S. have typically increased by a factor of six or more. That’s why the vast majority of Haitians who emerged from the extreme poverty of the last two generations have done so by leaving. Migration has done more to alleviate destitution for Haitians than all the billions in aid, all the international investment and all the trade preferences given in the past decades.

And that doesn’t even count the assistance that those Haitians who emigrated have sent back to their families. People in Haiti receive from $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion every year in remittances from abroad, about a quarter the size of Haiti’s entire economy. The remittances amount to roughly double the foreign aid to Haiti. And unlike aid flows, those remittances went directly to needy families’ pockets. Even people who didn’t leave Haiti would have been enormously worse off without those payments received from emigrants.

What these numbers mean is that migration must be a major pillar of any assistance strategy for Haiti going forward. Any assistance strategy that does not focus on what has worked best in the past is simply not serious. And any assistance strategy that focuses on taxing Americans to send aid is more expensive to them than migration.

Immigration does not sap the U.S. economy, it benefits our country. Immigration generates hundreds of billions in new economic productivity and tax revenue for the U.S., according to a study by Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda of UCLA.

I propose that the U.S. should create a legal mechanism to allow limited numbers of immigrants from the very poorest countries, like Haiti, to either temporarily or permanently live and work in the U.S. Call it a Golden Door Visa, after Emma Lazarus’ famous poem about the Statue of Liberty. It does not mean letting all people from Haiti or any other poor country into the U.S. It means reserving a small number of visas for people from those countries, not necessarily increasing the total number of U.S. visas.

No legal mechanism now exists to let people into the U.S. simply because they lack opportunity and thirst for it. Haitians, for example, don’t qualify for refugee visas or “diversity” visas, so if they aren’t lucky enough to have close family members who already live in the U.S., there’s almost no way to seek better opportunities here.