How Haiti Highlights the Failures of U.S. Immigration Policy

U.S. immigration reform will help Haiti much more than U.S. foreign aid.


Marie Therese was one of a handful of Haitian women attending English class in a duplex on a recent Boston morning. In a mixture of English and Haitian Creole, she echoed a sentiment shared by her classmates, most of whom had immigrated after the 2010 earthquake that killed at least 200,000 Haitians and left 1.5 million homeless. They talked about how tough it had been to get jobs in the U.S. in the economic malaise still lingering since the recession. Marie Therese had worked at a chocolate factory for about a year but hadn't found steady work lately. Still, she said, she didn't want to move back to Haiti anytime soon.

"It's difficult to find work," she said, "but here, I have hope."

It's no secret that much U.S. aid to Haiti since the earthquake hasn't been spent effectively. An Associated Press report from earlier this summer noted that "the fruits of an ambitious, $1.8 billion U.S. reconstruction promise are hard to find." Another recent AP report about a USAID audit described how the largest U.S. contractor working in Haiti hasn't monitored its projects adequately and isn't on track to complete its assignments on schedule. Nearly three years after the disaster, more than 350,000 displaced Haitians remain living in tent camps.

With foreign aid failing, some have championed an alternative way to help Haiti recover. Center for Global Development (CGD) economist Michael Clemens has labeled immigration Haiti's "most successful poverty reduction program," noting that the "vast majority of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so by leaving the country." He and Harvard's Lant Pritchett have estimated that a low-skill worker from Haiti earns at least six times more in the U.S.

A tweak in U.S. immigration policy could channel money directly to Haitians and help them in a way that billions of dollars of foreign money has yet to do. More than 100,000 Haitians are already approved for family-based U.S. visas but remain in Haiti on 2-11-year waiting lists. With the stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama could allow these Haitians to come to the U.S. to wait for their visas, apply for work authorization, and eventually help support family still in Haiti via remittances. Remittance payments accounted for 21 percent of Haiti's GDP in 2011 according to the World Bank.

Massachusetts State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry (D), a Haitian American, has led the charge for creating the so-called Haitian family reunification parole program (HFRPP). In July, her office sent a petition with more than 6,000 signatures to the White House and the Department of Homeland Security lobbying for the change. DHS has remained silent on the issue despite the petition and bipartisan support from 100 members of U.S. Congress, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.).

A similar program was created in 2007 for Cubans in the same family-based visa immigration limbo. One of its purposes is to "discourage dangerous and irregular maritime migration." Such travel is something people may be willing to risk when the payoff is a six-fold increase in wages. Eleven Haitians died at sea in June when the boat carrying them sank near the Bahamas; last December, 38 Haitian migrants died in a shipwreck near Cuba.

But ultimately, the move would just be another ad hoc, stop-gap measure added to the U.S. immigration policy hodgepodge, like the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted to Haitians post-quake.

"They need to fix this thing, because it's a mess," says Carmelle Bonhometre. For 12 years, Bonhometre has worked at the Association of Haitian Women of Boston, where Marie Therese was studying English. "People will still come illegally if they are [otherwise] waiting for 12 or 14 years for their brother or sister."

TPS was granted to Haitians who had been living in the United States when the earthquake struck, allowing them to remain in the country, and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano recently extended the program through July 2014. But Bonhometre says that some refused the status because they worried it would limit their freedom to visit family in Haiti or affect their application statuses for visas. "They need to fix the bureaucracy," she adds. "It doesn't make any sense."

"The bad thing about TPS a lot of people don't realize," Teddy Chery says, "[is that] TPS can get renewed every two years, and at any given moment . . . they can close TPS."  Chery works for the City of Cambridge's mayor's office and is active in Boston's Haitian American community.

"There's a country in Latin America who's been living under TPS for over 20 years," Chery says, "so are you going to have a TPS program for Haitians for the next 20 to 30 years? Something's got to give. So why don't you just do the family partition and have it be a second level to TPS?"

While a Haitian family reunification program could be based on the existing Cuban one, Chery notes that Haiti's Caribbean neighbor has clout his home country doesn't. "I think unfortunately we don't have enough elected Haitian officials that are making enough noises," he says, "along with other Haitian American professionals, of using their power to vote to influence policy decisions. . . . And I think that's the reason why for example Cuba was able to do it, is because when you look at Florida, when you look at Miami, and there's a big chunk of the Latino vote you need."

Immigration has taken on a renewed importance, especially in the GOP, since election day. President Obama trounced Mitt Romney in the Latino vote, 71 percent to 27 percent according to Pew Research Center exit polls.

Sen. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has stressed the Republican Party's need to address immigration policy sensibly; approaching it as an economic issue may be one potentially succesful strategy. "Our goal is not to make rich people poorer," Rubio recently told Politico. "It is to make poor people richer, make all Americans more prosperous. And I think immigration is a part of that. . . . In order for this economy to grow dynamically, this country is going to need a 21st century legal immigration system."

While economists' convictions about the costs and benefits of immigration differ, the rough consensus holds that negative effects on wages and jobs for U.S.-born workers are minimal, and that positive benefits from increased productivity and specialization in U.S. labor markets are significant.

Shortly after the November election, CGD recommended that the Obama administration grant Haitians family reunification parole before the president's first term ends. The move wouldn't require action from Congress and may be an effective way to support Haitian recovery given the shortcomings of foreign aid to date. Although, as Republicans and Democrats alike know, the lack of comprehensive reform to untangle U.S. immigration policy remains the crux of the issue. America's convoluted policy stance toward Haiti only makes that point more salient.