Congress asks for immigration, tax changes to help Haitians
Updated 2:10 p.m.
By Ben Pershing and N.C. Aizenman
Members of Congress are gearing up their response to the earthquake in Haiti, drafting legislation to encourage charitable giving and calling on the administration to relax immigration restrictions.
The House is expected to consider legislation Tuesday or Wednesday that would allow people who make charitable donations for Haiti relief to include them in their itemized deductions on their 2009 tax returns. The measure will be introduced jointly by Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
"This measure provides an immediate benefit for those who have already given and incentive for those who are considering a charitable contribution," Rangel said. Camp added that Americans' donations "can literally mean the difference between life and death to many of those still struggling through this tragedy and devastation."
Congress took the same step in January 2005 to encourage donations after the tsunami that decimated parts of Southeast Asia.
Separately, New York Sens. Chuck Schumer (D) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D) announced Thursday that they were proposing legislation that waive the limits on tax deductions for donations to Haiti relief. Normally, individual taxpayers can only deduct up to 50 percent of their income in a given year. Congress took similar action to abolish that limit temporarily after Hurricane Katrina.
On the immigration front, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and 13 fellow committee Democrats, plus Independent Sen. Bernard Sanders (Vt.), wrote to President Obama asking that Haitian immigrants be granted Temporary Protected Status for 18 months. That classification is given to immigrants who can't safely return to their home countries, whether because of a natural disaster, armed conflict or other causes. In this case it would allow Haitian immigrants in the U.S. to send funds back home legally.
"The United States granted TPS to Honduras and Nicaragua in 1999, following Hurricane Mitch, and to El Salvador in 2001, following several earthquakes," the senators noted. "Haiti clearly meets the criteria for TPS designation and extending it would be one small way to help address this catastrophe, as well as alleviate additional burdens on American assistance workers."
A committee aide said the panel had not yet gotten a response to its request from the Obama administration.
Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, echoed the call for TPS status in his own statement.
"It is in the foreign policy interest of the United States and a humanitarian imperative of the highest order to have all people of Haitian descent in a position to contribute towards the recovery of this island nation," Lugar said.
A trio of House Republicans from Florida - Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart - made the same request of the administration.
Their endorsement of emergency asylum broadens a lobbying effort that has largely driven by immigrant advocates and lawmakers with long-standing ties to the Haitian American community.
On Friday, Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora and the local Washington-area advocacy group CASA of Maryland also called for the status change, joining leaders of the National Council of La Raza, America's Voice, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center and three House Republicans from Florida.
The heads of two national groups that advocate for stricter immigration controls, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies, said Thursday that they too would support extending temporary protected status to Haitians in this case.
Beyond those issues it remains to be seen whether Congress will move in the coming weeks to authorize additional foreign aid funds for Haiti. Two-dozen senators wrote to the chamber's leaders and the Appropriations committee Wednesday to ask that they "include robust emergency funds to assist Haiti in the next legislative vehicle before the Senate."
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said the crisis "highlights the importance of having sufficiently fast and flexible resources at the ready to respond in a meaningful and effective way. I am in touch with the Administration to determine whether legislation is needed to provide additional humanitarian aid or emergency authorities that would improve our ability to save lives and relieve suffering."
Ben Pershing and N.C. Aizenman
January 15, 2010; 12:05 PM ET
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