Friday, January 29, 2010

Responding to the Crisis in Haiti

Weekly column by Senator Susan Collins

The devastation in Haiti is of unconceivable magnitude. The images and news reports are unbearable to watch, and the distress, suffering, and loss of the people of that devastated island are heartbreaking.

America is responding to this grave humanitarian crisis it always does – with everything it has and in every way it can. Our valiant military personnel are on the scene, saving lives and bringing relief. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are pouring into the country with their skills, compassion, and dedication. Throughout our nation and across our state, collection baskets, benefit events, and telethons are overflowing with the generosity of our people, even in these difficult economic times here at home.

I have dedicated resources of my offices to aid in this effort. My staff-- here in Maine and in Washington—is working closely with constituents who have family and loved ones in Haiti. They are in constant contact with State Department officials and international relief organizations to locate the missing and to expedite their evacuation to the United States.

Here are just a few examples. A Maine couple had been in the process of adopting two Haitian boys, ages six and two. Working with the State Department, we were able to determine that the boys are safe and being cared for in an orphanage outside of Port-au-Prince, and that they are awaiting military transport to the U.S. Currently, we are working with two other families, in Winthrop and Pittsfield, to accelerate travel for Haitian children they are in the process of adopting.

We are working to bring about the return of an 11-month-old girl, who had been living with extended family in Haiti, to her parents in York County. After being contacted by her sister in Saco and by working through the U.S. Embassy, we were able to assist a 72-year-old nun in evacuating Haiti. We also have helped a family in Wayne locate their son who was in Haiti with a small group from his college, and assisted a Rockport woman in providing her brother, a priest, with information on evacuating his mission group to the Dominican Republic. And we assisted in locating a young woman from Eddington who had been visiting friends in Haiti and in providing information on how to return home.

In addition, I have joined a bipartisan group of member of Congress urging President Obama to require that federal agencies provide for the safe and swift evacuation of orphaned children in Haiti. It is essential that federal agencies work with the greatest possible speed to bring the estimated 600 to 700 orphans who have been granted humanitarian parole to their waiting adoptive U.S. families.

On Jan. 18, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would extend humanitarian parole to those Haitian orphans with established adoptive relationships with U.S. families so that these orphans could travel immediately to the United States. In the days following the announcement, however, federal agencies failed to put forth a coordinated logistical plan to assure these orphans’ immediate safety, efficient immigration processing and exit to the U.S. Without such a plan, desperate American citizens will put themselves or the children they are seeking to adopt at risk in attempting evacuations on their own.

This delay is a direct result of a lack of inter-agency coordination and communication to the public, and of ad-hoc processing of travel documents by the U.S. Embassy. With the most innocent and helpless of lives at stake, this is no time for bureaucratic delay. I will continue to push for better cooperation and more rapid processing of essential documents.

A powerful earthquake has left the people of Haiti with an awful burden of loss, despair and ruin. Working together, with all of us doing what we can and as much as we can, we will at least help ensure our Haitian neighbors that it is a burden they do not bear alone.

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