On-the-Record Briefing on Consular Services Being Provided to American Citizens in Haiti and in the United States in the Aftermath of the Earthquake
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Overseas Citizens Services Michele T. Bond and Deputy Assistant Secretary For Visa Services David Donahue
OPERATOR: Welcome and thank you all for standing by. All participants will remain in a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question at that time, please press * then 1. Today’s conference is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect at this time.
And now I’d like to turn the call over to Mr. Mark Toner. Sir, you may begin.
MR. TONER: Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us. We’re very pleased to have Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs and Overseas Citizens Services Michele Bond, as well Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services David Donohue, who are here today to discuss consular services being provided to American citizens in Haiti and in the United States in the aftermath of last week’s earthquake. They’re going to open up with some brief on-the-record remarks, and then we’ll turn it over to your questions.
MS. BOND: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thank you.
MS. BOND: This is Michele Bond, and good afternoon to those who are on the call. We very much appreciate your participating in this call and helping us to relay to the public information about the efforts of the State Department to assist American citizens in Haiti and to assist their loved ones in the United States who are very concerned about them. We are also working to assist Americans who are engaged with assisting adoptive children in Haiti with whom they’ve been matched.
Within one hour after the earthquake hit Haiti on January 12th, the State Department mounted an around-the-clock task force to coordinate rescue and relief efforts and respond to the needs of American citizens. Our bureau, Consular Affairs, staffs two task forces in Washington and two call centers where we have received more than 300,000 calls since our toll free line was opened. The Embassy staff in Port-au-Prince has also been responding to thousands of requests for assistance.
Because of the overwhelming numbers of phone calls, we established an email address to which information could be sent by those worried about American citizens in Haiti. Consular staff in Washington and in locations around the world have joined in to respond to these emails and to keep the information completely up-to-date in our database.
The toll free number for inquiries about American citizens is 1-888-407-4747. The email address for those who prefer to send us an email is Haitiemail@example.com. When callers contact us either by phone or by email regarding American citizens in Haiti, the workers on our task force enter the biographical information about that person and their last known location into our crisis database. The Embassy in Port-au-Prince uses the same database to add information about citizens’ welfare as it becomes available. We add updates in the United States as people here hear from their family members in Haiti or contact is made one way or another, and they let us know about the updated status of their loved ones.
Information about U.S. citizens who are believed to be trapped in buildings is passed to search-and-rescue teams on the ground in Haiti. So far, we have opened more than 9,000 cases in the crisis database. Of those, just over 3,500 people have been accounted for. The rest are still people that we are working to ascertain the well-being of. As we receive information about anyone, we do contact family members to pass that information back to let them know what we’ve learned.
During the immediate hours after the tragedy, our task forces also received many calls regarding persons of other nationalities who were in Haiti. The State Department convened a meeting of NGOs and tech companies, which designed a Person Finder which helps people find persons of all nationalities within the earthquake zone. That tech tool can be accessed through the State Department website:http://www.state.gov/p/wha/ci/ha/earthquake/index.htm, all one word, “haitiquake”. This tool is available in French, English and Creole.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Haiti, consular personnel, augmented from personnel throughout the Embassy and an additional staff who have been deployed to Port-au-Prince, have been working to ensure that American citizens get necessary medical assistance and are evacuated on all available flights. Thousands of U.S. citizens have already departed on flights to the U.S. and the Dominican Republic. Consular officers in the Dominican Republic are working 24/7 to assist U.S. citizens make onward travel plans to the United States and ensure that they receive necessary medical care.
As of 8 o'clock this morning, we had evacuated just over 2,900 citizens aboard 44 flights. We currently have 525 citizens at the Embassy compound who will be transported to the airport today for evacuation. And as of 8 o'clock this morning, there were 136 Americans at the airport or boarding planes.
I also am sorry to report that we have so far confirmed the deaths of 24 American citizens and there are reports of additional deaths that have not yet been confirmed.
Let me just say a few words about adoption cases in Haiti. We know that there are several hundred Americans in the United States who were in various stages in the process of adopting Haitian children. They are naturally frantic with worry about the children’s welfare and want to know how that adoption can be expedited so the children can be brought safely home to the United States.
We are looking at each and every case individually and are working with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Haitian Government to determine solutions in each case. USIS is preparing to issue a joint press release from State and DHS which will describe the kinds of cases we can assist with now and what adoptive parents should do to help us make a determination about whether their child is eligible to travel now. We hope to announce a plan for processing travel documentation for children that fall into two specific categories shortly.
Thus far, we are happy to say and proud of our Embassy to be able to say that the Embassy has processed immigrant visas for 24 orphan children whose cases were ready for visa processing. As you may know, our visa office is closed at this time because of the emergency care we have to provide to American citizens; however, visa services for adopted children are continuing to go forward.
All of the 24 children who have received immigrant visas have departed Haiti and have joined their families in the United States. These cases with completed Haitian adoptions were at the very end of the documentary process and were ready for visa interviews and issuance at the time of the earthquake. The consular section at the Embassy is ready to assist in other cases that are ready to be processed for immigrant visas.
In all cases where a visa can be processed, we will need to have the child present, but we will work with the orphanages to arrange for that.
Parents who are interested in following up on this and determining whether their own child is eligible to receive a visa and travel now can contact us at ASKCI@state.gov. So that’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all I have. I’m happy to take questions.
MR. TONER: Great. Yeah, we’ll take your questions now. Please give us your name and your affiliation.
OPERATOR: We will now begin the question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question at this time, please press *1. Please remember to un-mute your phone and record your name clearly when prompted. You may withdraw your question by pressing *2. Once again, to ask a question, please press *1 at this time.
The first question will come from Elise Labott of CNN. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing this. All of us are obviously getting a lot of calls from Americans about what can be done to help them. A lot of Americans have lost their passports in Haiti and so I was wondering what you’re doing about trying to confirm their citizenship and get them out.
And secondly, yesterday on the conference call, I think it was Denis McDonogh but I can’t be sure who was speaking, said that 150 orphans had been transferred out. Did he not mean that they were transferred out for Americans? Because he said that they evacuated 150 orphans and then I guess 6 more later in the day. So if you can clarify the discrepancy about that.
And then if you could say what you can do if the visas, like, were not processing, what could you do at this point to expedite that adoption process? Thank you.
MS. BOND: Okay, thank you. Let me answer first the question about what happens to an American citizen whose passport has been lost in the earthquake. There is nothing in the world that is easier to fix than that. We have all of the information – if you lost your passport, I’ve got your picture, I’ve got your application, I’ve got your signature that you signed it with. I can confirm in a second that you are who you say you are and I can issue a document that allows you to travel to the States.
QUESTION: So just go to the Embassy or something?
MS. BOND: Exactly. And we have come up with something that’s quicker than issuing a new passport. We have a procedure that allows people to travel very quickly directly back to the States. We worked that out with DHS. So not having a passport is a zero problem.
The question about what can be done to – what, in principle, can be done to assist people who are whatever stage of the adoption process, it’s extremely important to remember that the best interests of the child are at the heart of all of this, and so we do want them to be where they’re safe, clearly, and we want them to be well cared for.
But for people – for children who are very early in the process, so that, for example, we have not yet been able to confirm that the prospective adoptive parents are suitable adoptive parents, the best interests of the child is not to send them directly to those people if we have an added chance to vet. But we will be – we are working on each of these cases. We have a good-sized team of people that are focused on this to take a look at what has happened in each case, what actions have been taken by the Haitian Government, what actions have already been taken by the U.S. Government. And those actions relate to confirming that the child is truly an orphan eligible to be adopted and that the adoptive parents are suitable to adopt that child and have agreed to the adoption and so forth. And we are working closely with DHS to examine the documents in each case and come up with a procedure that might allow us to show some flexibility in view of the extreme circumstances of the earthquake.
This also requires the agreement of the Haitian Government. These are Haitian children, and so any adjustments or changes that we make to our procedures will require the approval and agreement of the Haitian Government, and we are in touch with them about that.
QUESTION: Have you been in touch with all of the parents whose children are in line for adoption? Because all of us – I could say most of our organizations on the call – we’re getting calls from parents that have already been to – like the child’s been identified, they’ve already been in the process of visiting Haiti several times to meet with them and have been in regular contact, and they said that they haven’t heard anything.
MS. BOND: Right. Well, we are going to be reaching out to those parents in order to tell them here’s what we’re going to need in order to move forward and to confirm that either we already have it or that, in some cases, there are documents that they may be able to provide to us. And we have received hundreds, thousands of incoming messages from parents. I well imagine that it’s very frustrating to them that they haven’t immediately gotten a call back from us, but what’s important for them to know is that the information that they are sending us, we are taking and putting into our own matrix to make sure that we have the most up-to-date information. Much of what they’re sending us is information that we already have in our database, but we are adding in whatever they send and we will be reaching back out in order to let people know what to do.
One person on my staff mentioned to me yesterday that she had gone through 300 messages that had come in. They turned out to be related to 16 adoption cases. I would like to just mention that we are following up on these, but multiple messages over and over and over again do not add to efficiency.
QUESTION: Thanks very much.
MS. BOND: Thank you.
OPERATOR: I’m showing no further questions at this time. But once again, to ask a question, please press * then 1.
MR. TONER: Are there any other questions?
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Dmitri. Your line is open.
MR. TONER: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hello, my name is Dmitri Zlodorev. I am from TASS News Agency of Russia. Several hours ago, we heard information from Haiti that about 30 Americans were injured or even killed in some incident in Port-au-Prince airport. Could you confirm that or deny that? Thank you.
MS. BOND: Well, I also saw the CNN report. The report that I heard was that there had been some incident in Port-au-Prince. I think if whatever it is happened at the airport we’d have information very, very quickly. I actually am not in a position to confirm anything. I think I know as much as you do at this point.
PARTICIPANT: I saw a follow-up report on CNN that actually said that it was – it turned out to be not quite as bad an incident. There were four slightly injured Americans. But again, that was from CNN reporting.
PARTICIPANT: Yeah, and I had seen a report that it was three.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Debra Pettit. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, I’d like to ask a question regarding evacuations. We have some information that some Haitian nationals were not getting clearance to leave Haiti to travel to the U.S. for medical care. Do you have these complaints, and can you tell us anything about them and the immigrations concern that you may have?
MS. BOND: David?
MR. DONAHUE: This is David Donahue, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services. We don’t have any specific information. Obviously, our first priority is assisting American citizens who wish to return home. We certainly will assist urgent cases who, say, come to the – at the Embassy. And there may be people who are traveling – we know that people have come to the United States, but we don’t have any specific information on this, on the complaints.
MS. BOND: If I could just add one more comment – this is Michele Bond. We’ve – there are increasingly more medical supplies and options being brought into the country, and that may mean that fewer Haitians need to be evacuated to another country to get medical care.
QUESTION: Do you have any idea or number of – could you go back over some of those numbers you talked about – evacuations?
MS. BOND: What about them?
QUESTION: Could you go over the numbers again? You were ticking them off rather quickly.
MS. BOND: Oh, I beg your pardon. All right. As of 8 o'clock this morning, we had evacuated 2,900 American citizens aboard 44 flights. Some of them went to the Dominican Republic and then our staff there assisted people to travel on. People have been evacuated also directly to the United States. Many of these have been backhaul flights on military planes that came in with supplies, and so the people went back to wherever that military plane came from and they were taken to various airports around the United States.
As of this morning, there were – and this is a number that’s just sort of FYI because it’s obviously constantly changing – but there were 525 citizens at the Embassy this morning who were waiting to be transported to the airport for evacuation. And at point in time, there were 136 Americans who were at the airport or boarding planes.
I think it’s worth noting that throughout this crisis, so far we have been able to evacuate people as they came to us for help. Whether they came directly to the airport or came to the Embassy, we’ve been able to put them on planes and send them out. So there hasn’t been a buildup of people who have to camp out for several days before we’re able to move them.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Charles Wolfson. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, Charlie Wolfson of CBS. I’d like you to go over the casualties in terms of number official – the number of fatalities, and also you made allusion to there may be a number of others in the fatality category that haven’t been confirmed. Can you go over those numbers again, please?
MS. BOND: Yes. We have confirmed the deaths of 24 American citizens. We have received reports from others in which the, in some cases, the identity of the deceased has not been confirmed but we have reason to believe that it is an American citizen. I don’t have fixed numbers (inaudible).
QUESTION: Can you give us a ballpark on that, and does your number of 24 American citizens include your late colleague Victoria DeLong? It’s still one official U.S. citizen, one official government person?
MS. BOND: To my knowledge, there is, yes, only Victoria DeLong is – she’s the only official American that I’m aware of whose death has been confirmed. And now I’ve forgotten what the other thing was you wanted. Oh, you wanted a general ballpark.
MS. BOND: I think that there are approximately that many more, about 24 possible deaths, that we are working to confirm.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Elise Labott of CNN, your line is now open.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, there just weren’t that many questions so I thought I would take the opportunity. (Laughter.) As I usually do.
MS. BOND: Why not.
QUESTION: We’re getting also – I’m sure you’ve heard the reports about some of these Americans that are trapped. And I know that the teams are working, but you can hear the, like, anguish of the parents on air being, like, well, why isn’t the U.S. doing more specifically to get those American citizens. I don’t know if there’s anything more that you can do, especially, I guess, like with those people trapped at the Hotel Montana, but I just wanted to give you the opportunity if there’s anything you can say about what’s being done to specifically help these people.
MS. BOND: It is impossible to even imagine the agony that the families are experiencing while they wait and hope for news. There have been search-and-rescue teams working at the Hotel Montana since the first teams arrived and they are still working there and they haven’t given up. We are still hoping that we will find more survivors at that site.
QUESTION: And are you going to – I mean, I guess there’s not much more – is there anything else that can be done? Not really, I guess.
MS. BOND: We are – the people that are missing at that site are from – are affiliated with different organizations, and we are in touch with those organizations and with some family members to – I think all of the families know that we would – they would be hearing from us instantly if there were any news that we could pass. But at this stage, I think part of what’s been difficult and painful for them is that there hasn’t been any news for so long.
QUESTION: I just have one more question, if you don’t mind. There is – there are Americans that are saying that aid hasn’t reached them, that – I mean, what is the – two things. What is the kind of process for prioritizing aid as far as the Americans are concerned? Obviously, we know you have a massive effort and you’re trying to reach as many people as you can. Are you taking special care to make sure that Americans that are in the country are getting the kind of aid that they need?
And lastly, on the identification process, could you go over a little bit what your identification process is for confirming that someone is dead? Because we’ve had reports of people that we’ve heard or seen that have died and have passed it on, and their families are still waiting to hear. So obviously there’s a – you have a much higher bar to confirm that actually someone – an American citizen – is deceased. So I think it would be helpful if we knew what that process was so that we know that it’s not just that you haven’t notified the person.
MS. BOND: Okay. As far as the process of prioritizing aid, I’m not the best person to respond on that. American citizens in the country who need help are the people that we are assisting to leave, to evacuate. There is, of course, a massive aid effort that’s going on to bring in supplies and food and water and medicine and so on for the people in the country. And I suppose American citizens who decide not to depart Haiti will hopefully also have access to that assistance. I’m not sure that I would see any logical reason why they should have prioritized access.
QUESTION: I understand. I’m just –
MS. BOND: As for the process of identifying and confirming the deaths of American citizens, you can appreciate, I’m sure, that we do receive reports sometimes that turn out not to be accurate, and we are very careful never to notify a family of a death that then turns out not to have been the case. And that’s why there is a delay between when something may be reported to us and when we’re able to actually get confirmation. Very often, that confirmation may come from Haitian officials and sometimes it is actually made by U.S. officials.
At this point, there may be military or other mortuary teams who will also assist in terms of identifying and making arrangements for the disposition of the remains of American citizens.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. BOND: You’re welcome.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Kim Ghattas of BBC. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much for doing this. I have three questions, all about adoption. You mentioned that, at the moment, you’re looking into speeding up the process for those who are already quite far down the process of adoption and bringing the children to the U.S. What about those who are very early on in the adoption process? How much of a setback is this, or will they also see their procedure speeded up?
And then would you encourage or discourage parents who are considering adoption to look at Haiti at the moment? Which leads me to my third question: How worried are you about potential abuse and fraud in the wake of the earthquake that people might try to abuse the situation and bring children out illegally?
MS. BOND: Thank you. Those are very good questions. Your first one was about how – whether the process would be accelerated for people who are very early in the process. For the most part, the – what I would give as an example of someone who is very early in the process is someone who has expressed an interest in adopting and indicating that Haiti is the country that they’re looking at but has not yet reached the point of being matched with a specific child. And so they are in the process, but there isn’t a particular child. And being matched with a child can only happen after the parents have been vetted and the child has been clearly checked by the Haitian Government and we know that that’s really an orphan. So I think people who are early on in the process should not anticipate that there will be an acceleration in their particular process because the focus will be on some other priorities, including assisting just recovery from the earthquake.
The second question was: Would we encourage Americans who are considering adoption to look at Haiti? In a very general sense, yes. But I think it’s very important to understand and appreciate that people who are seeing what’s happening and thinking to themselves, gosh, there must be a lot of orphans now, children who have just lost their parents, we should offer to help, we should take a child into our own home – that’s an extremely generous and admirable reaction, but it’s important to remember that in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like this – it was true in the tsunami, for example, and in any other example you can give – there are children whose parents are looking for them and they’ve been separated from their family or their parents may have been killed but there are other adult family members who are very interested in caring for them and are looking for them. And so the first thing you do is not to remove children from the country on the – just the quick assumption that, oh, there’s probably no one left and we’ll just adopt them out. That’s not the first solution that should be looked at for those kids.
We are, naturally, worried about fraud – that’s always a concern – but are equally worried about working with AID and others and with other governments to ensure that the children who are – the vulnerable children who are orphaned or separated from their families receive the immediate aid that they need and serious attention is paid to sorting out their status and whether they have family members left before considering is given to looking for adoptive families for them.
QUESTION: Of course. Thank you very much.
MS. BOND: Thank you.
OPERATOR: The next question will come from Nicholas Kralev. Your line is open.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Nicholas from The Washington Time. You said, Michele, that you evacuate some of the American citizens to the Dominican Republic and some to air bases or cities around the U.S., wherever those planes are going back to. I’m wondering since, as you know, many of those people have lost their possessions, including credit cards and money and all that, then how are they getting from those points to their home towns and home cities and home airports if they don’t have money or credit cards with them? Who’s taking care of that? Thank you.
MS. BOND: Thank you. That’s a good question, too. But this is the sort of situation that we are very accustomed to dealing with. It’s not, in its own way, not so different from someone who is robbed in London and suddenly has no credit cards and no ID. We’re accustomed to helping people get in touch with their credit card company or get in touch with family members, so if there are resources that they can draw on themselves, we help put them in touch. And if not, we give them a government loan that helps them to get home and then they pay that loan back later. But that’s a very routine part of our work.
QUESTION: Thank you. And just one follow-up on the passports issuance, and that’s the temporary document you mentioned earlier. Obviously, most of those flights getting out of Haiti are not commercial flights at this point. Once commercial flights resume, are the airlines – the airline employees at the airport in Port-au-Prince trained to recognize these temporary travel documents and let people on the plane without actual passports?
MS. BOND: Yeah, we would work with – if we were still at that point using these temporary documents, we would work with the airlines to make sure that they knew what to do with them. But when we get to the point where routine flights are coming in, we will also probably be at a point where we can – we have the time and the resources to issue passports to people, so they’d just be traveling normally. At the moment, we’re using the other method because it’s quicker and we’re trying to move people as fast as possible after we’ve determined that we know their identity.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. BOND: You’re welcome.
OPERATOR: Once again, to ask a question, please press * then 1. The next question will come from Charles Wolfson of CBS. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you again. We’ve heard a lot about the number of U.S. military going into Haiti. Can you bring us up-to-date on how many State Department employees have augmented the Embassy staff, DS people, consular people, other members of the State Department staff? How many people have you got down there now?
MS. BOND: Do you all want me to take that?
MS. BOND: I can speak with respect to consular staff who have gone in, but I don’t want to give you a number because I’m afraid I’ll be off by three or four or something. So let me just say approximately 25 experienced consular officers have gone in to augment the staff that’s already there, including quite a few who speak Creole. Some have served there and some perhaps knew it for other reasons. But we are – they are very mid-level and experienced staff that have gone in.