Opinion: Let Haitians come to the US

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?

Yes.

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.

A Golden Door Visa could be used for some countries in some years, other countries in other years, and its numbers could change every year — just like refugee visas — to respond flexibly to conditions in the U.S.

How many such visas would be enough to help? For many years now about 20,000 Haitians per year have been given legal permanent residency in the U.S. That is just 2 percent of all U.S. immigration. But even that trickle has done vastly more to help Haitians leave poverty than anything else that the U.S. has done within Haiti. Even reserving a tiny 1 percent of U.S. immigrant visas for Haitians would mean a 50 percent increase in the good that the U.S. has done for Haitians.

This idea is controversial. The editors of USA Today wrote about several objections that are on many people’s minds: migration can’t help all Haitians, it would be hard to decide who deserves the visas the most and a “firm stand on immigration” would help more “in the long run” even though it might not “feel as good” as the “impulse” to let a few of them to emigrate to the U.S.

These arguments don’t make sense. Of course migration can’t help every poor person on earth, or even close to every poor person in Haiti. That’s no reason not to help the limited number that we can. Would you refuse to give a dollar to charity on the grounds that your dollar will not eliminate poverty for all people on earth?

And certainly it would be hard to decide who deserves a Golden Door Visa, but no harder than it is to decide who deserves a refugee visa, and we give about 80,000 of those per year — because it’s the right thing to do.

The most bizarre of USA Today’s ideas is that forcing Haitians to stay in Haiti’s disaster zone is the best thing for them in the long run. Imagine if USA Today had written that forcing people to stay in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, without letting even a few of them leave, was best for those people in the long run.

Half of Haiti’s population lived on one dollar per day even before the horror of the quake; it is abominable to rationalize trapping people in circumstances like that.

The Statue of Liberty stands as testament to the fact that America is a nation built by immigrants. The best way to help Haiti is to allow some Haitians to immigrate to the U.S. They will benefit both the U.S. economy and Haiti’s economy.

Michael Clemens is a research fellow at the Center for Global Development and an affiliated associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University.