14 Jan Haiti: Should the US Evacuate American Citizens First?
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.