Patrick’s point person on Haiti Relief discusses challenges still ahead

The Reporter talks to Richard Chacon, Executive Director of Office of Immigrants and Refugees (ORI). Chacon was appointed to oversee the state’s response to last year’s catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. He also covered Haiti and took several trips there as the Boston Globe Latin America correspondent from 1997-2001.

BHR: Walk me through the year in services [provided by the state] to the Haitian community, especially displaced Haitians.

Richard Chacon: There have been a variety of services provided for folks here and in rebuilding efforts in Haiti. Immediately following the earthquake, Governor Patrick made it a priority to have a swift plan to address needs for Massachusetts’ residents. He appointed our agency, Office of Refugee and Immigrants to oversee these efforts, which was unprecedented for an agency like ours. Our primary responsibility was to deal with special refugee cases and work with other agencies to provide emergency resources. It was a new role for us.

We worked with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) because of their experience [in these circumstances]. We were able to develop an inventory of personnel and equipment to help out with immediate needs - if we were asked to send any. We communicated to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) what we had available here in the state.

We also marshaled services for grief counseling via emergency response counselors through the Department of Public Health (DPH) who worked with non-profit organizations like the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, etc…

BHR: Given that we’re coming out of recession, where did the state find resources? Where did funds come from?

RC: DPH [for example] was able to find existing resources to tap into. The agency identified $500,000 of federal emergency funds to provide local grants to health centers and community-based organizations.

And when we found out that many Haitians didn’t have adequate information about immigration, ORI also helped organized dozens of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) clinics – through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) the federal agency that processes immigration applications. We did all these things simultaneously for several months.

BHR: How did you work and/ communicate with the community about all these services?

RC: I regularly went out to different communities across the state to offer briefings. You remember at the time [immediately after the earthquake] there was very little information coming out of Haiti. We had weekly calls with pastors for them to get the information out to their congregations. We understood how crucial it was to involve the clergy right away and continued to do so. We also created 211, a hotline for services across the state- available in both English and Haitian Creole. For the first 6 months, a lot of it was dealing with the grief and TPS needs.

When [the state of] Florida communicated they couldn’t take any more medical patients because of the mounting costs and the lack of federal funds, Governor Patrick made it clear to us, that he wanted us as a state to say yes if we were called upon by the federal government. He wanted to ensure we had a plan ready to possibly start receiving medical evacuees. We worked with Massport, Massachusetts General Hospital, UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester and Baystate Health in Springfield. We also worked with the Boston authorities and paramedics to make sure we had adequate transport services available, if and when we needed them. As it turns out, we were never asked to receive medical evacuees

BHR: How did the needs of the community evolve throughout the year?

RC: The longer [time elapsed] from when the quake happened, the more we had to evolve the level of services to include housing, English classes, job training etc… The needs had become more complex, as in the case with housing.

BHR: What’s the plan for housing the thousands of displaced Haitians now residing in the state? How will the community be involved in developing and implementing this plan?

RC: We are [currently] in the process of developing recommendations for the governor. We have made some progress in services we can provide. Much of this has to do with eligibility - which has to do with an individual’s status. Main categories of immigration status are: TPS, Deferred Action, Visitor visas, permanent residents/naturalized citizens and undocumented.

For the first four status’ we can provide a number of services and we are actively identifying those sources to support [those efforts]. The majority of folks with documentation we’re dealing with have visitor visas, and are being advised to apply for Deferred Action. Our biggest challenge is identifying and encouraging undocumented people to come forward. If people remain undocumented, we cannot provide them with services like housing.

And in terms of services, we can find all kinds of affordable housing for folks, but having a job is important. That’s what folks tell us when we visit different communities across the commonwealth. So we have to ensure people are job-ready. To do that, they have to have legal status. They need to learn English. There’s need for childcare, education and affordable health care as well.

BHR: What’s the estimated number of displaced Haitians in the state?

RC: It’s hard to pin down an exact number because of the many different ways they have come here. Because there are so many different types of categories to get into the country, it’s really hard to pin down a number. As you know this is a very fluid community. We’ve contacted USCIS to get estimates and not even they can give us a hard figure. It’s a major problem because we have to know what scale we have to plan for.

BHR: What’s the timeline on this plan?

RC: Recommendations go to the governor at end of this month, and we might see implementation begin as early as end of February, early March.

BHR: Describe your experience working with the Haitian community.

RC: Biggest lessons I learned were through the tremendous show of grief and support for our Haitian residents. I think this underscores the historical ties between Massachusetts and Haiti. The response across the board has been very moving.

BHR: Do you want to go to Haiti and would you encourage Governor Patrick to go with you?

RC: Yes, I would very much like to do so and I would encourage the governor to visit. I love Haiti. It’s an intense place. It’s a very vivid place.