Haiti and Immigration: Relief Beyond the Earthquake

As a result of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, both the United States and France have stopped deporting illegal Haitian immigrants back to their country. The decisions are commendable, and will undoubtedly save lives. But as immigration officials suspend deportations because of the obvious jeopardy awaiting deportees once they arrive home, those judgments call into question the wisdom of policies that encourage immigration and lead to deportations in the first place. Not only that, but if normal immigration rules can be bent in times of duress and calamity, can't the same humane considerations be taken into account when everyday life deals a series of catastrophes and hardship?

Over the last 10 years, the United States has deported more than 18,000 back to Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. About 30,000 Haitians currently have orders to leave the U.S. Across the Atlantic, France, Haiti's old colonial master, expelled about 38,000 Haitians over the last couple of years. But as they were cutting deals with charter airline companies to send Haitians packing, couldn't the U.S. and France have done more to prevent them from making their desperate voyages out of the country? Last year, Haiti received good news when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund canceled $1.2 billion in external debt. Much of that debt had been run up by the U.S.-supported Duvalier regimes which ruled the country between 1957 and 1986. Canceling that amount of debt relieved a strain, But the agreement still left Haiti with about $700 million worth of debt--a liability that today jumped by 14 percent when the International Monetary Fund said it will provide Haiti with $100 million worth of new emergency funding. The $100 million will be tacked onto Haiti's existing loan. As a result of both the old and new debt, Haiti must still pay off millions of dollars a year in interest payments alone, an obligation that the impoverished country can ill afford. Every dollar spend on a creditor is one less invested in infrastructure, and one more reason for a Haitian to try his or her luck at leaving the country.

If the U.S. and France are serious about limiting or controlling Haitian migration, a debt cancellation policy and more serious assistance and investment in Haiti would do more than a deportation policy. Over the past nine years, U.S. foreign aid to Haiti has totaled $426 million. To put that into perspective, while it has provided Haiti with the equivalent of about $42 per person, over the same period of time, the U.S. gave the Republic of Ireland an amount equal to $790 per capita in foreign assistance. What's wrong with this picture? To be fair, Haiti's political instability and corruption have resulted in decisions to restrict foreign assistance, but after choking on its colonial legacy, Haiti deserved more than benign neglect and crushing debt.

The decisions by France and the United States to suspend deportations in an emergency show that both governments clearly see the connection between immigration policy and economics. Yet, in normal circumstances, neither the U.S. nor Europe seems to show sufficient constraint in repatriating migrants back to countries where they may face poverty or repression. Italy, for example has come under criticism for deporting potential asylum candidates back to Libya. The developed world needs to give more humane consideration to its immigration policies--and not just when earthquakes strike.

As for Haiti, I like Juan Cole's idea. He points out that Haiti's gross domestic product is about $7 billion a year. That's chicken feed to a Wall Street banker. The sum works out to just over two percent of the amount--$47 billion--that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase combined have reportedly set aside for this year's bonuses. Cole's "modest proposal," recognizes that since U.S. government bail bailouts helped the banks make their windfalls, the least that executives could do is exercise a little common decency and donate say 10 percent to Haiti reconstruction and development. That would be $4.7 billion and would go a long way in Haiti. That still leaves about 30,000 Haitians in the United States who will face deportation when the immediate disaster ebbs and the world's news media move on to the next crisis du jour. A number of politicians and advocacy groups are calling on the Obama administration to extend "temporary protected status" to Haitian nationals living in the United States. Under the circumstances that seems fair. They could remain in the country temporary, obtain work permits, and send money home, without being under the deportation cloud.

Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. His forthcoming book, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley & Sons) will be available in April 2010.