My brother was in Haiti when the Earthquake struck. He was lucky to be on a building that didn’t collapse, and so he wasn’t injured. He spent the next several days helping dig people out from under the rubble, assisting doctors with basic medical tasks, and so forth. After the first day of hard work, he found his way to the American embassy, which was built like a fortress. He tells me it looked like we had transplanted a chunk of the midwest to Haiti. The compound had manicured lawns, air conditioning, independent electricity and water supplies, and so forth. He was able to take a shower, get food to eat, and have a safe place to sleep. On Friday, as disaster-relief professionals were beginning to flood into the country, he got a ride back to the United States on the return flight of an Air Force plane that was sending supplies down to Haiti.
Obviously, no similar amenities were available to native Haitians. Many slept on the streets, and there remains a very real danger of mass starvation if aid doesn’t arrive in time. And of course most Haitians don’t have the option of hopping on a jet bound for the United States. That’s a tragedy because evacuation is crucial to crisis management. Hundreds of thousands of people fled New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Evacuation was not only a good decision for many of the people who evacuated; it also eased the load on overwhelmed emergency workers.
The difference, of course, is that American immigration law prevents the vast majority of Haitians from coming to the United States. True, the American government has grudgingly allowed Haitians who are already here illegally to stay for another 18 months. But the our immigration policy remains essentially hostile to Haitian immigrants:
[Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano warned that no new arrivals would get amnesty and the U.S. Coast Guard and other authorities would move quickly to stop new migrants. “People should not leave Haiti with the false belief that they will be entitled to TPS in the United States,” she said. She also said, “We are seeing no signs of any sort of migration of that nature at this point.”
In the wake of Katrina, Gov. Perry put out the welcome mat for Katrina refugees and even airlifted some refugees to other states whose emergency facilities weren’t so overtaxed. If he had instead tried to block people from fleeing to Texas from New Orleans in the days after Katrina, (something that, fortunately, he didn’t have the authority to do) we would all have castigated him for his callousness. Whatever minor inconveniences Texans might have suffered from the presence of New Orleanians would clearly be outweighed by the scale of the human tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina.
For reasons that aren’t clear to me, most Americans have very different intuitions about human beings in Haiti who are, if anything, in even more desperate straits. Not only are we not putting out the welcome mat, we’re actually spending taxpayer dollars to prevent Haitians from reaching our shores.
I think it’s fitting that this tragedy is unfolding around the Martin Luther King holiday. I agree with Chris Hayes that Dr. King would not have wanted us to turn him into a bland patron saint of “service.” Dr. King devoted his life to fighting segregation, one of the great injustices of his time. I think that the best way to carry on his legacy is to identify and attack injustices in the contemporary world. And in my view, our immigration laws are among our most morally bankrupt.
Indeed, our national conversation about immigration policy is far behind where the Civil Rights movement was when Dr. King arrived on the scene in the 1950s. By the late 1940s, civil rights advocates had developed a compelling moral critique of Jim Crow. The early Civil Rights pioneers weren’t afraid to talk about the struggle against Jim Crow as part of the centuries-long struggle for universal human rights. They clearly understood that Jim Crow was bad not because it hurt whites or “the economy,” but because it was unjust to black people.
In contrast, the contemporary debate over immigration policy takes it as a given that people not born in the United States have few rights that the U.S. government need respect. Advocates of immigration reform routinely concede that immigration policy should be evaluated almost exclusively in terms of its costs and benefits to native-born Americans and the American economy, with the rights and interests of prospective immigrants receiving little or no weight. We feel sorry for the Haitians, of course; we’re giving them millions of dollars in aid. But when the crisis is over and the flow of aid stops, we expect them to meekly accept that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives living in desperate poverty and constant fear. We might care about them, but we don’t care about them very much—certainly not enough to give them access to the tremendous opportunities that citizens of wealthy countries take for granted.
In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote disparagingly of white moderates who pressed civil rights activists for patience. King understood that asking blacks to wait until the white majority spontaneously decided to give blacks their freedom effectively meant asking blacks to wait forever. People in positions of privilege almost never feel any urgency about reform. I think demands that prospective immigrants wait in line until we feel like letting them are made in are in a similar spirit. We admit only a tiny fraction of the low-skilled immigrants who would like to come here, and so (to paraphrase Dr. King) “wait” almost always means “never” for low-skilled immigrants.