Setting Orphans’ Path To U.S.

Setting Orphans' Path to U.S.
Haiti-Based Officer Hears Hundreds of Cases, Ruling on Which Children Can Go

By Miriam Jordan
The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2010

Dozens of times a day, Pius Bannis helps decide the fate of a Haitian orphan.

An immigration officer at the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Mr. Bannis is charged with determining whether orphans had been matched to U.S. families before Haiti's devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. If so, he clears them to leave for the United States.

Hundreds of Haitian children have been brought to him since the quake, some only a few months old, others in their teens. With many of the country's orphanages damaged or destroyed, Mr. Bannis often pieces together cases assembled from records extracted from the rubble.

Even before the earthquake, Haiti was home to 380,000 orphans. Americans adopted 330 of them in the fiscal year that ended last September, making Haiti the 8th-most popular country for adoption by U.S. families. After the quake, the U.S. announced a humanitarian parole policy to expedite the processing of orphans already assigned to U.S. families.

Some 500 Haitian orphans have been cleared since then. Several hundred are already in the U.S., after passing through Mr. Bannis.

It is too early to say how the immigration officer's decisions will play out in the lives of hundreds of children who will stay or leave Haiti based upon his determinations.

But the impact could be great. Inundated by cases from newly overcrowded orphanages, Mr. Bannis must stay on guard against fraud.

Concerned that some orphans might be snatched by child-traffickers amid the chaos, the Haitian government earlier this week temporarily halted departures of all orphans.

Departures to the U.S. under the humanitarian parole program are expected to resume within days, according to State Department officials. In anticipation, Mr. Bannis processes files, sleeping a few hours a night, usually in his office.

'He's the last thing standing between these kids and human trafficking,' says Diana Boni, Haiti coordinator for Kentucky Adoption Services, a nonprofit adoption agency based in Owensboro, Ky., who added that Mr. Bannis has answered her emails at 1:30 am. 'Pius deserves a medal.'

'Night turns into a day and day turns into night, because people come at every hour to have their cases adjudicated,' Mr. Bannis said by telephone from Port-au-Prince.

Mr. Bannis, a 57-year-old career officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is himself a Caribbean immigrant to the U.S. from the island nation of Dominica. A lawyer by training, he moved from Atlanta to Port-au-Prince in August 2008 to work as an agency field-office director.

His working conditions are dire. The consular waiting area, which normally draws adults seeking visas to the U.S., has turned into an 'orphans-only waiting room,' he said. At times, it's hard to concentrate because 'it's a screaming world in that waiting room.'

When documents and photographs have been salvaged, orphanage staff lug boxes of them to Mr. Bannis to prove that a child was already matched to a U.S. family. When the paperwork is missing, he tries to corroborate orphanage accounts with information provided by colleagues in Washington, who comb through U.S. government records of adoptions in progress.

He sometimes emerges from behind his service window to fetch diapers, toys or drinks for the waiting orphans. The other day, Mr. Bannis said, he went searching for a change of clothes for a baby who was soiled.

'I'm a little tired,' Mr. Bannis said. 'But it's very satisfying to see the smile on an orphan's face.'

On Thursday, the immigration agency said four reinforcements from other embassies arrived to lend him a hand.