Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Haitian Migrant Crisis Isn’t Over

The decades-long story of Haitian immigrants is just another part of our broken immigration system.
September 29, 2021
The Haitian Migrant Crisis Isn’t Over
A Haitian migrant boy and his father wait in line to give Mexican immigration officials their information at a shelter in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, on Sept. 25, 2021. U.S.-Mexico border arrests have reportedly stayed at the highest level in more than two decades, with more than 208,000 registered in August alone. (Photo by Nick Wagner/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The immediate crisis of Haitian refugees at the border in Del Rio, Texas, may be over for now, but if history is any guide, it will return again soon. Already, reports of thousands more Haitians moving north through Central America suggest another wave may be on its way. Joe Biden is only the latest U.S. president to confront this problem. Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of Haitians have fled their homeland each decade because of political corruption, violence, and natural disasters, many of them fleeing in rickety boats in a dangerous 900-mile journey.

In 1980, some 25,000 Haitians joined 125,000 Cubans during the Mariel Boatlift, arriving by boat in South Florida and sparking a political crisis for President Jimmy Carter. Held in overcrowded detention camps, most of these refugees were given temporary legal status through the Cuban Haitian Entrant Program, which lasted a bare four months before negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba shut it down. Hoping to avoid another Mariel Boatlift disaster, the newly elected Reagan administration negotiated an agreement with Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier to allow the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept Haitian boats in international waters to determine whether they carried would-be asylum seekers. Although the policy ostensibly allowed those with legitimate fears of persecution to seek asylum, of the nearly 23,000 Haitians who were interdicted between 1981 and 1990, only 11 were even allowed to apply for asylum, while the remaining were forced to return to Haiti.

In the 1990s, Haitians again took to the sea by the thousands because of political upheaval in Haiti. A military coup ousted the country’s elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, setting off another major refugee crisis. Both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton struggled to control the flow, negotiating agreements with regional partners to resettle some refugees, while sending others to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were held until their claims for asylum could be processed. Those whose claims were denied were returned to Cuba. Under the first Bush administration, some 27,000 Haitians were processed through Guantanamo, which held 12,000 refugees at its peak. But even among those deemed eligible for asylum, nearly 300 were held for a year and a half in a special camp because U.S. law at the time prohibited entry to the U.S. to any foreign person with AIDS—a policy not reversed until a 1993 court order.

In 2010, Haitians by the thousands once again sought refuge in the U.S. after a devastating earthquake killed 200,000 people on the island. The Obama administration granted temporary protected status (TPS) to about 55,000 undocumented Haitians already in the U.S. and those arriving within one-year of the earthquake, which allowed them to stay in the U.S. and receive work permits. In 2018, Donald Trump attempted to reverse TPS for Haitians and Salvadorans, who had also been granted such status as a result of natural disaster, but in 2020, a federal court enjoined the administration from removing TPS holders from those countries and four others. In May, the Biden administration announced it was extending protection from deportation for another year.

Over the decades, critics of U.S. policy on Haitian refugees have claimed that Haitians received worse treatment than comparable groups seeking asylum, especially Cubans. Accurate as those criticisms might be, they don’t address the broader issue. Our asylum laws only provide refuge to those who have a reasonable fear of torture or persecution if returned to their home country because of the asylee’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Some Haitians have qualified under these criteria, but not many.

There are some 700,000 Haitian immigrants already in the U.S., and the vast majority have come through the normal immigration process, usually under the family reunification provisions. If the United States had a functioning immigration system, we could accommodate many more of those Haitians seeking to relocate here. Unfortunately, we don’t. Congress has refused to consider needed revisions to current law that would allow more immigrants to come legally. Despite a massive labor shortage—10 million jobs remain unfilled because few American workers are willing to take them—we shut our doors to those from Haiti and elsewhere eager to work.

The fear that drives immigration policy has changed little over the last hundred years, when we began restricting immigration to the U.S. In the early 20th century, we adopted draconian restrictions because we feared that the millions of Jews, Italians, Poles, and others would never become true Americans, instead transforming this nation into versions of their home countries. Madison Grant—the Tucker Carlson of his time—warned that

The result of unlimited immigration is showing plainly in the rapid decline in the birth rate of native Americans because the poorer classes of colonial stock, where they still exist, will not bring children into the world to compete in the labor market with the Slovak, the Italian, the Syrian, and the Jew.

Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race, was very influential in passage of immigration restriction laws that remained in place until 1965. But the dire predictions about Southern and Eastern European immigrants’ inability to assimilate into and thrive in American society proved false. So, too, are fears that today’s Haitians—or Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, or others—will never make it America.

According to a paper by the Migration Policy Institute, Haitian immigrants are more likely than other immigrants to become U.S. citizens and be in the labor force, and they are more likely than other Caribbean immigrants to speak English well. The overwhelming majority of Haitian immigrants (79 percent) have at least a high school degree and 19 percent have a college degree. While their median household earnings are somewhat lower than native-born Americans, $53,800 compared with $62,300 in 2018, they are far from poverty-stricken. Indeed, poverty rates for Haitian immigrants (14 percent) are roughly the same as for the native born and substantially lower than blacks overall (19.5 percent).

If we were to adopt a more humane policy in our treatment of Haitians and others fleeing instability and poverty in their own country, we could not only benefit those who want to come here but also boost the U.S. economy. We will not fully recover from the devastation the pandemic has wrought without expanding our labor force. Yet neither the administration nor Congress has been willing to prioritize immigration reform as a major component of economic recovery.

Those seeking a better life in America shouldn’t have to trek hundreds or thousands of dangerous miles over water or land to the U.S. border to claim asylum. They should have a realistic chance of gaining admission through a sensible and economically helpful immigration policy that admits workers we desperately need if we are to grow. But that won’t happen as long as politicians exploit Americans’ fears and abrogate their responsibilities to legislate for the common good.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is a senior fellow at the National Immigration Forum and served in the Reagan White House as director of public liaison. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.