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- As Delivered –

WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today had the following question-and-answer session with at the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing on implementation of his law, the U.S.-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act (H.R. 4939):

Rep. Engel: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  Mr. Ambassador, I have three questions.  I’m going to try to condense them and be as brief as I can, but I think they’re all important.

“You’ve been mentioning Haiti a lot. So let me just say that Temporary Protected Status for Haitians living in the United States expires on January 22, 2018.  If President Trump does not extend TPS, 50,000 Haitian-Americans would be sent back to the poorest country in the hemisphere, which is still suffering from the effects of not only the 2010 earthquake but also Hurricane Matthew and the ongoing cholera epidemic.

“I’d like to insert into the record a letter from the New York delegation to Secretaries Tillerson and Kelly on this topic that was sent on May 5th of this year. I was one of the people who signed as well as Mr. Espaillat and other members of the delegation.  So, I’d like to enter that into the record.

“And, given the country’s food insecurity crisis and massive homelessness, how well-prepared is Haiti to absorb this population?  And, if these individuals are forced to return to Haiti, what would be the implications for migration flows to the Dominican Republic and other countries in the hemisphere?

“And, finally, we know that 15 percent of Haiti’s GDP is made up of remittances from the United States.  If we end TPS at the same time when we are cutting foreign assistance to Haiti, what could the impact of this dual blow be?  Let me see if you can answer some of those, and if not, you can put something in writing that we could do at a later date.”

Ambassador Merten: “Sure, I’m happy to talk a little bit to that.  As I think you know, DHS Secretary Kelly made a decision in either late May or early June of this year to extend the benefits of TPS for the Haitian TPS beneficiaries for six months.  At the end of that period, so sort of in November of this year, he will look again at the situation and make another determination as to how DHS will act.

“In the interim, we will be asked, we the State Department, will be asked and the Embassy will be asked to provide a country conditions report to DHS.  I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of the report that they’re going to generate.  They’re going to look at facts on the ground and submit that and that will be part—that will be our submission effectively to DHS.

“I understand—I understand your concerns and we are certainly very aware of the delegation’s concerns of TPS.  We, in my discussions with Haitian diaspora community, it is a subject that comes up with great regularity so I’m most familiar with the concerns.

Rep. Engel: “Thank you. One of the things I’ve been pushing for for a long time, and I continue to be shocked that the United States still has no diplomatic presence in five key countries in the Eastern Caribbean: St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  Venezuela and Cuba have embassies on all five of these islands while the United States does not have a single diplomat in place.

“I was pleased that the State Department’s new strategy acknowledged this fact, but now we need a plan to move forward in establishing a diplomatic presence.  These of course don’t have to be costly, multimillion dollar embassy compounds, but can be smaller offices, smaller diplomatic posts.

“So, what is the impact of our diplomatic absence from these countries, particularly when countries that are not so friendly to us are there?  What are the State Department’s plans in the short and long term to expand our presence in the Eastern Caribbean?”

Ambassador Merten: “Thanks for the question.  I think, you know, in the immediate term, I don’t think there is going to be funding available to open new diplomatic facilities.  What we are looking at is ways at which we can, internally we’re looking at ways at which we can do a better job at bringing some of those diplomatic services for those countries currently.  As I think you know they’re all handled out of Bridgetown, Barbados so we are looking at our processes and seeing what we can do.

“Currently, these countries are served by our ambassador to Bridgetown, Barbados, who is accredited to all those countries and who makes regular visits to them and members from the Embassy country team.  And we’re going to be looking at ways at which they can continue to improve their outreach.

“But, should funding become available, certainly we will be working with our OBO, Official Buildings Office, I believe is what it’s called within the State Department to see what will be within the realm of the possible.”

Rep. Engel: “Let me just say, I appreciate your answer.  But let me just say that I think some special funding should be found for this because it would go a long way.  And it’s crazy that while Cuba and Venezuela are there, and China is there, the United States, which is so close, is not.  

“And then finally, very quickly, I want to raise the issue about LGBT Americans who travel to the islands of the Caribbean. They are, there is a lot of anti-LGBT climates in many of these countries with laws and that are really arcane.  Has the State Department implemented any strategic dialogue with countries of the region on the need to temper some of these climates with a view to supporting the tourism that's so important to their economy?  And if not, can you please commit to doing so?”

Ambassador Merten: “Thanks for the question.  I think you know we have been active, the State Department has been active on this issue in the past.  I think there are certain cases where we’ve continued to talk to people quietly.  I think it is a situation where you need to judge each country differently and judge what is going to be the most effective way to ensure that you approach a government to get the desired output which is nondiscrimination and embracing all people.  So, we continue on that path.”

Rep. Engel: “Thank you. Thank you Mr. Chairman.  You have been very generous with the time. Thank you.”

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