Haiti: Should the US Evacuate American Citizens First?

by Peter Spiro

There are an estimated 45,000 US citizens in Haiti, and there’s an assumption that they should be first in line to receive US assistance.  As Hillary Clinton said yesterday, “They are our principal responsibility, to make sure that they’re safe, to evacuate those who need medical care.”  In his remarks this morning, President Obama stressed that “We will not rest until we account for our fellow Americans in harm’s way.”  The State Department has asked journalists in Haiti to get the word out that US citizens who would like to be evacuated should make their way to the airport.

This makes the most sense for US government personnel (and perhaps especially their families).  It also probably makes sense for US citizens who were unlucky enough to find themselves in Port au Prince as tourists when the quake struck.  These are people who may be in some ways at special risk, in alien territory, and their government owes a special responsibility to them.

But the vast majority of the 45,000 are not in either category.  (Another nontrivial category is aid workers who were already in place at the time of the quake, but assuming they are able-bodied, they are right where they want to be.)  Most are Haitian-born naturalized US citizens who had returned to Haiti; children born in the US to Haitian immigrants who returned to Haiti; or born in Haiti to US citizen parents.  In other words, US citizens who make Haiti their home.  (Most probably hold dual citizenship.  Although Haitian law does not recognize dual citizenship, in practice the status is common.)

Should these individuals get priority for US help?  I don’t mean to challenge their entitlement to citizenship.  An estimated 4-5 million Americans live abroad, many permanently, and their right to retain citizenship as nonresidents is water under the bridge.  But as between a healthy US citizen who lives in Haiti (and who wants to get out because it is not a nice place to be now) and an injured non-US citizen who may die if not taken to a hospital ship or Miami or someplace where there are functioning medical facilities, the choice is not so obvious.  Evacuation capacities are finite.  Putting US citizens at the front of the line means putting others at the back.


13 Responses

  1. How many people actually go to Haiti for vacation?  I can’t imagine there are many tourists there.


  3. Lawyers have made it effectively impossible to evacuate patients to the US for treatment and then promptly return them to Haiti when their condition stabilizes. The only option, thanks to lawyers, is to treat them in Haiti or let them die.

  4. To Howard: I don’t think that is correct.  Actually, one of the issues cuurently being considered is a loosening of visa paperwork requirements to make it easier to medevac injured people from Haiti to the U.S. (given that the standard paoperwork is pretty much impossible to file right now). As this would be part of the U.S. visa system (relaxed initial paperwork or not), there would supposedly be a time limit on their stay in the U.S. as well as a method of monitoring.  I think your assessment is unwarranted in its starkness. Injured Haitians can (or will be) treated in the U.S. and I believe they will be able to be repatriated in a timnely manner after their treatment. If, by the way, your concern had to do with aylum seekers,  Haitians do not have a track-record of successfully seeking asylum int eh U.S. as the immigration courts have viewed them as economic refugees who are not covered by the “justified fear of persecution” standard.

    To Joe:  end of December through the first half of January is the high point of tourist season in Haiti.  Many U.S. born citizens of Haitian descent travel then to be in Haiti for the Holidays (not only Christmas and New Years but January 2d is also Haitian independece day).  So you will find planes (especially from NYC and Florida) packed during that time with people–many of whom are U.S. citizens living in the U.S.–but going to Haiti to see their relatives. There is also a thriving cruise-ship resort in the North of Haiti, at Labadee, but that area was less affected by the quake.

  5. Just to follow up on Chris’ first point, noncitizen quake victims could readily be paroled into the US under section 212(d)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which provides:

    The Attorney General may in his discretion parole into the United States temporarily under such conditions as he may prescribe only on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit any alien applying for admission to the United States, but such parole of such alien shall not be regarded as an admission of the alien and when the purposes of such parole shall, in the opinion of the Attorney General, have been served the alien shall forthwith return or be returned to the custody from which he was paroled and thereafter his case shall continue to be dealt with in the same manner as that of any other applicant for admission to the United States.

  6. Response… The Entire Country, Haitl, Should Be Evacuated, Until It Can Be Rebulit. Put Them In Good, Decent, Prosperous, Countrys, With Adequate, Food , Shelter, & Clothing

  7. Response…

  8. Response… The Am response is two-pronged. HHS, DOD, and USAID are concentrating on helping everyone- indiscriminately. USSTATE and DHS are concentrating on AM citizens. I’d say our moral compass is satisfied. Once HHS stands up the federal medical stations and the USS Comfort arrives, the medical infrastrucutre will be better than it ever was even before the quake. Before, non-government charitable organizations WERE the healthcare system.

  9. If anyone has a way to get this information to people who can do something about it, please pass it on, this is a message my sister sent to Haitian Earthquake at State.  Thanks, Ben

    To whom it may concern,

    I have just spoken with my cousins, Luce Qualo (92), and her sister Madeleine Bruce (82) in Haiti. Luce is an American citizen.  Madeleine is a Haitian citizen.  They both travelled from New York City to Haiti on December 5, 2009 and had planned to leave on February 4, 2010. They both have return tickets.  Luce has lived in New York City for decades.  Her sister, Madeleine, has a son, Ronald Bruce, who lives on Long Island.

    I don’t have either one’s date of birth at the moment nor do I have their passport information.  Will get this.

    They are sleeping in the yard outside in Delmas 47 section of Port au Prince.  The address is 16 Rue Stella. It’s at the corner of 47 and Rue Stella.  The phone number that they have access to is:  011-509-3453-5467.  They are only near that phone between 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.  Otherwise, they return to the yard in which they sleep next door at 6:30 p.m.

    Both of them have high blood pressure and are taking pills.  Their supply of pills is dwindling. They have minimal food as they are eating the food stock from Madeleine’s house.  They have water. Madeleine has 3 servants with her as well.

    We are hoping that all of them will be able to be evacuated quickly.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. […] Opinio Juris » Blog Archive » Haiti: Should the US Evacuate … […]

  2. […] raises an important question about what the US obligations should be in a crisis like Haiti’s.  Should the US government put its priority on evacuating its own citizens first? There are an estimated 45,000 US citizens in Haiti, and there’s an assumption that they should be […]

  3. […] When we are deciding who to evacuate from Haiti, Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama tell us that our first priority is to get out American citizens: As Hillary Clinton said yesterday, “They […]

  4. […] appropriate for the US to evacuate its citizens (and there are about 45,000 in the country, many of whom were born in the US or naturalized and moved back), and perhaps even helpful to the […]