Lawmakers back sustained effort in Haiti despite 'checkered' U.S. history there

Lawmakers are wholeheartedly supporting a sustained effort to assist Haiti despite concerns of how the international community may view the U.S. presence in the nation.

The U.S. announced on Thursday that it is sending another 4,000 military personnel to assist with Haiti’s relief efforts, more than a week after a devastating earthquake shattered Haiti’s infrastructure and left thousands dead and even more homeless.

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Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said that the troop movement was a good start but that more troops may be needed. Engel added that the two wars in the Middle East have spread the U.S. military thin and could hinder immediate troop mobilization.

In the immediate days following the quake, the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers full of troops to Haiti, bringing the total expected number of military personnel assisting in Haiti to 16,000 by the end of this week.

Engel said he was aware of how such a dramatic increase in troop presence could be seen by the international community and by Haitians, but that the U.S. is just trying to help.

“I know we’ve had a long and checkered past with U.S. military presence in Haiti but they are welcoming us and the word I’m getting is that they want U.S. intervention there and they trust us,” he said in an interview.

Engel was referring to the U.S. history of militarily occupying Haiti and intervening in the country’s domestic political affairs at various times throughout the 20th century, when it behooved American foreign policy. Despite the past, Engel said that the U.S. military should remain on the island for as long as necessary.

“I don’t think we should set a hard-and-fast end date because we don’t know how long we’ll be needed but I think certainly a statement of intent can be made,” he said.

“I don’t think people will see it as an occupation; I think they know that we’re there to help them. The president has said he’ll send up to 2,000 [more] Marines, which is a good start. We’ll probably need more than that, but we can’t do 10,000, we just don’t have the personnel.”

Engel is not alone in worrying about how the U.S. military presence in Haiti will be seen both by locals and the international community.

President Barack Obama told ABC News on Wednesday that he was being “very careful” to keep an open dialogue with the United Nations, which has a total of 9,000 peacekeepers on the island, and the local Haitian government.

“I want to make sure that when America projects its power around the world, it's not seen only when it's fighting a war,” Obama said.

Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he was disappointed that the U.S. aid efforts had been met with criticism from South America. Over the past week Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales have both condemned the U.S. as occupying Haiti militarily.

“The U.S. response has been swift and appropriate, and the U.S. military is to be applauded for its tireless efforts to bring supplies, medical resources, security and hope to the Haitian people,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we still have leaders in the Western Hemisphere like Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales who are making shameful and outrageous comments about the United States’ efforts to help the people of Haiti."

Mack also emphasized the need for Congress to keep the aid funding process as transparent and fraud-free as possible, adding that the subcommittee would be “strongly engaged” in assisting Haiti’s long-term future.

On Monday the FBI and the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) established a telephone hotline to report any suspected fraud in the area of Haitian earthquake relief.

The NCDF was formed by the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute disaster relief fraud intended for victims of Hurricane Katrina, after billions of dollars in federal money flowed to the Gulf Coast.

Meanwhile, as troop escalations came from the Pentagon, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) emphasized on Thursday that as time goes on, they will not lose sight of the need to help Haiti in its relief efforts.

The CBC said that the U.S. is responding to the tragedy in Haiti not out of “guilt” for its years of intervention but out of a sincere desire to help.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added that the poverty, which has plagued Haiti for decades, was not created by U.S. foreign policy toward the island alone, and that Europe was to blame as well.

“I think it goes far beyond the United States of America,” said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). “Haiti didn’t get in this condition without the help and conspiracy of European countries, which we have allowed that to happen in our hemisphere and so it’s not just a question of guilt."

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) interjected, saying, “France, in particular.”

Earlier this week the White House granted hundreds of “humanitarian paroles” to Haitian children who had been previously determined as eligible for foreign adoption and had been matched to potential American adoptive parents.

A bipartisan contingent of 15 senators and 35 House lawmakers sent a letter on Thursday to the White House asking that the nearly 700 orphans affected by Monday’s announcement of humanitarian parole be evacuated from Haiti within the next 10 days.

The letter, signed by Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others, was sent to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Designate Rajiv Shah.

Immigration officials on Wednesday also announced that the U.S. would be offering Haitians living illegally in America on or before Jan. 12 - the day of the earthquake - a temporary protected status for 18 months.

The deportation delay, even if only temporary, has long been something that congressional Democrats like Engel have pushed for, and U.S. officials say as many as 200,000 Haitians could apply.