RALEIGH, North Carolina — In September 2021, when news broadcasts showed gripping scenes of thousands of Haitian migrants camped out under a Texas bridge on the U.S.-Mexico border, many Americans could only assume that recent events in Haiti stood as the cause. Just about a month after grappling with the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, the country was hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and a tropical storm. While these events no doubt led to some Haitians fleeing the country, the vast majority of Haitian migrants now seeking entry into the U.S. via the U.S.-Mexico border had fled Haiti years earlier. To fully comprehend these migration patterns, it is important to understand the root causes of migration from Haiti.
Haiti’s 2010 Crisis
In 2010, a massive earthquake brought devastation to Haiti. The widespread death, homelessness and hunger prompted an outpouring of support from the world. Individuals and countries rallied to contribute billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the impoverished country. While the aid helped feed, shelter and provide medical care to those facing the impacts of the disaster, the negative economic repercussions were nevertheless deep and long-lasting. As a result, tens of thousands of Haitians sought better lives in South America in the years to follow.
The Hope for a Better Life in South America
At first, Brazil was the primary destination for Haitian migrants desperate to escape the hardships back home. In preparation for hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil needed an influx of workers for massive infrastructure projects. Tens of thousands of Haitians were happy to meet that need. However, Brazil’s improved economic standing and political openness toward immigrants would not last forever, prompting some Haitians in Brazil to eventually seek out Chile as their next destination.
Prior to 2018, Chile became an attractive destination for many Haitian migrants because the country did not require them to obtain visas for entry. Chile also has the second-highest GDP per capita in South America, behind only Uruguay. But, no matter the economic health of a nation, the prospects for immigrants are only as good as the legal protections they enjoy and the popular sentiments of its citizens. Unfortunately, many Haitians have reported workplace discrimination and racism in Chile.
The job prospects for Haitians in Brazil and Chile were further hurt by the global economic downturn caused by COVID-19. Facing dwindling job prospects, political resentment, discrimination and racism, tens of thousands of Haitians headed north for the U.S. in 2021.
Political Reform in Haiti and Temporary Protected Status in the US
Any long-term solution to mass emigration from Haiti will have to successfully confront the political instability, corruption and lawlessness that annually compel thousands of Haitians to flee the country in search of a better life elsewhere. How exactly to do that is a contentious issue, in both Haiti and among its broad diaspora.
One group has sought a new path forward since early 2021. In response to the corrupt and broken political system under then-President Jovenel Moïse, a broad band of Haitians, including “unions, professional associations, farmers’ alliances, human rights and diaspora organizations, Voodoo groups and churches formed the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis.” The Commission is now trying to form a new government from the ground up with the support of all these disparate Haitian groups. It believes that inclusion and transparency in its process will bring legitimacy to its new government and to subsequent free elections. The Commission hopes that the U.S. government and other global powers will support its efforts.
In the meantime, Haiti remains a country in turmoil and some believe that the U.S. could do more to help by allowing for increased issuance of temporary protected status to Haitians who arrive at the southern border. The Haitian diaspora is critical to the Haitian economy as remittances account for nearly “a quarter of [Haiti’s] GDP.” More Haitians working in the U.S. equals increased remittances to those in Haiti who greatly depend on these finances.
The Road Forward
The road forward will not be easy. The world must find solutions to address the root causes of Haitian migration, beginning by stamping out corruption and violence, building a legitimate democratic government and providing widespread economic opportunities to all Haitians. Until Haiti makes significant progress on these fronts, the journey of Haitians looking for better opportunities throughout the Americas and beyond will continue. The Haitian migration story of the past decade is one of vulnerable people from an impoverished country desperately seeking to escape the clutches of poverty.
– Jeramiah Jordan