By Lee Hockstader
June 30, 2010
I recently had a conversation with the mayor of North Miami, Andre Pierre, who has the distinction of having invited thousands of generally low-skilled immigrants with an imperfect command of English to come settle in his city.
Pierre was chief sponsor of a resolution, passed without dissent by the U.S. Conference of Mayors a few weeks ago at its annual meeting. The resolution urged the Obama administration to accelerate entry for 55,000 Haitians whose petitions to immigrate to the United States have been accepted but who are languishing on waiting lists that could last up to 11 years. The conference justified its demand as a means to provide relief for the earthquake-battered nation and increase cash transfers from Haitians working in the U.S. back to their relatives at home. The 55,000 Haitians in question have relatives who are either American citizens or permanent legal residents living in the U.S.
Probably no city in America would be more affected than North Miami if the administration moved the Haitians up to the front of the visa line. According to Pierre, about a third of his 60,000-plus constituents are of Haitian descent, meaning that thousands more would be likely to settle in the city if the administration opened the doors to the Haitians. But he said his town is prepared.
“These are folks with family members who are U.S. citizens and residents who want to be reunited with their families,” he told us. “The U.S. has really nothing to lose by [allowing] them in -- the government wouldn’t be paying for their travel, passports, airfare, or to go to eat or live in a home or take a shower.”
As it happens, Pierre, 41 years old, is himself a Haitian immigrant; he arrived in New York as a teenager and, before attending college and law school, made his way by cutting grass, pumping gas and delivering newspapers. And he has a further personal interest: his brother-in-law and teenage nephew and niece, whose applications to immigrate to the U.S. were accepted in 2002, are still awaiting visas; they’ve been living in a tent since the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The proportion of this country’s foreign-born population is near historic highs, and unemployment is edging 10 percent. Many Americans are hostile to the idea of new immigration -- particularly if it involves low-skilled newcomers with rudimentary English. But the fact is that America has absorbed great waves of immigrants in the past, and most have become productive, patriotic citizens.
If tens of thousands of Haitians were admitted from the wait list, the burden would fall heavily on a handful of places -- cities such as Miami, New York and Boston. Those three cities owe much of their texture and flavor to immigrants from Haiti and elsewhere; they tend not to look at newly-arrived Haitians as a foreign element, but as part of the fabric of their communities. The most venomous grousing about the Haitians would be likely to come from elsewhere -- from Americans far from the cities that would actually feel the arrival of a new influx of immigrants. It certainly won’t come from Mayor Pierre.