"Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Isaiah 1:17
The words of the prophet echo in my mind as I think about Haiti. How to apply the prophets words in this situation? Give money, sure. Pray, without a doubt. But what else?
A small group of orphans from Haiti have been allowed to enter the United States for adoption, and Temporary Protected Status has been granted for Haitians currently living in the United States without documentation. In addition, many activists are calling to cancel Haiti's international debt.
But what about the widows? What about the oppressed?
There is no doubt that thousands of Haitians now fall into these categories, plus one that I would add: medically debilitated.
In living out our faith, I wonder whether the the church would take on the responsibility to help welcome Haitians seeking a new life to our country?
As I've read coverage about the humanitarian crisis in Haiti, I am increasingly troubled by the comments about Haitians who may try to journey to our country from their devastated island. "The goal is to interdict them at sea and repatriate them," said one U.S. official; "Don't rush on boats to leave the country," said another.
In fact, the current American "response" plan involves catching those seeking refugee status, denying them an asylum hearing (as required by international law), then putting them in detention centers in South Florida or sending them temporarily to our base in Guantanamo.
Not exactly a compassionate response, especially considering that thousands of Haitians have immediate family members who are U.S. citizens.
I understand the safety concerns about desperate flights on the water. Having grown up in Florida with Cuban friends I heard firsthand about escaping Castro's Cuba on over-laden motor boats. But why not organize a legal, orderly system for Haitians who want to leave the island to come here, with churches bearing the brunt of resettlement assistance?
It wouldn't be that big of leap from our current system and is within the legal realm of possibility.
The majority of refugee resettlement organizations in the U.S. are faith- or community-based, and they partner with local churches and groups to help settle refugees into their communities. The model is extremely successful and has years of experience.
The U.S. government has legal options that would allow Haitians to enter the country legally. I am not an expert, but some folks are suggesting extending Humanitarian Parole and expediting the family visa system for Haitians. Moreover, after working in DC for many years, I know that if there is a political will, there is a way.
At a personal level, if my family was the victim of a devastating disaster, and my community was riddled with death -- would I need a fresh start? If Hurricane Katrina is any indication, then my answer is probably "Yes." While some people had the strength to stay and rebuild, many others chose to leave New Orleans and start over in another part of the country.
Many Haitians may choose to stay in Haiti and recreate their homes, but some families will not have the luxury of rebuilding due to physical or emotional scars. As victims of disaster, don't they deserve a chance to move on with their lives?
I understand there are legal hurdles to overcome, but the cry for justice and compassion should be growing in our faith communities. I encourage you to reflect on these questions:
- Are we willing to welcome Haitians, love them, and care for them in their time of need? Is it time to tell our government that we want Haitians to be welcome on our shores?
- If the opportunity existed, would you help a Haitian family who wanted to start a new life in your community? Would your church?
In closing, please join me in praying for how the U.S. church should fulfill the scriptures in regards to our brothers and sisters in Haiti. I would love to hear your ideas and what your church or faith community is already doing.
Elizabeth Denlinger Reaves is the deputy director of policy and organizing for Sojourners.