The Haitian Migration

Want to help the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still suffering from the 2010 earthquake? Let some of them into the United States.
January 9, 2012 |
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As we approach the second anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake, which killed around 150,000 people and destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, there has been mixed progress.  About half of the rubble has been cleared (if that sounds slow, consider it took five years to remove far less rubble in Aceh after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami). About half a million people are still living in camps in Haiti -- but that is down from closer to 1.5 million two years ago. Meanwhile cholera, introduced by U.N. peacekeeping troops, killed over 7,000 people in the aftermath of the crisis -- the infection rate has abated but the disease remains endemic.  

Progress after a disaster is always slower than hoped.  For all the benefits that the donor community has provided in reconstruction, one reason for the lack of progress is the often snail-like pace of heavily bureaucratized assistance efforts in the chaotic post-catastrophe conditions of weakly governed states.  For example, only about half of the cash promised by donors to Haiti for 2010-2011 had been disbursed by last month -- and the figure for U.S.-given aid is only about 30 percent.  There is still a huge gap between donor disbursement and impact on the ground; a lot of the resources have been disbursed only as far as implementing agencies like NGOs and international agencies, many of whom have yet to spend the cash.

Finally, even when implementing agencies do finally spend that money, much of it will go to pay foreign contractors rather than local people.  According to analysis by the Associated Press, Haitian firms successfully won only 1.6 percent of the value of U.S.-funded disaster recovery contracts issued in 2010. Yes, local firms were subcontractors on many of these contracts, but a large proportion of U.S. funding disbursed to support Haitian reconstruction ended up in the U.S. bank accounts of development contractors. We need more rapid ways to get relief directly to disaster victims, including the hundreds of thousands still suffering in the aftermath of the Haiti quake.

Luckily, we already have one: migration. Immediately after the quake, about 200,000 Haitians living in the United States without proper documents were granted "temporary protected status," which allowed them to work -- and send money home -- without fear of deportation. That single step may be the greatest contribution America has made towards Haiti's reconstruction to date.  That's because the 535,000 Haitian migrants in the United States send home money -- remittances -- worth as much as $2 billion a year.  An early estimate by World Bank economist Dilip Ratha suggested that the temporary protected designation might have been worth as much as $360 million in additional remittances to Haiti in 2010 alone -- that's more than total U.S. aid disbursements to the country in 2010 and 2011.

Beyond being a powerful short-term recovery tool, migration is vital to the long-term development of Haiti as well.  Economist Michael Clemens, my colleague at the Center for Global Development, suggests that four out of five Haitians who have escaped destitution have done so by leaving the country. Meanwhile, the potential benefit of a diaspora for Haiti's future prospects have been repeatedly demonstrated: one need only look at Indians working in Silicon Valley who were key to creating Bangalore's booming IT industry or Africans spending time abroad who are responsible for creating new export industries back home.  Across countries, larger migrant populations lead to greater trade, investment, and learning.

So if the United States is really interested in helping Haiti and other countries get back on track in the aftermath of a natural disaster, it should use migration as a tool for disaster recovery.  And, in addition to the temporary protected status designation, there are two other approaches that can be implemented -- despite the toxic environment for sensible immigration policy on Capitol Hill.

First, the United States has a temporary work visa for low-skilled workers.  The "H-2" program admits about 100,000 migrants for seasonal employment in agriculture and vacation resorts each year.  Haitians are ineligible for the program, however, because the country is not on an approved list maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.  But the administration can add countries to the program list without congressional approval, if the secretary of Homeland Security deems it serves the national interest. Surely fostering recovery in a destitute neighbor counts on that score.  

Michael Clemens estimates that each H-2 worker admitted from Haiti would typically raise their family's income by $19,000 a year -- and that each worker would send as much as 50 percent of their earnings back home. If there were just 2,000 Haitians in the United States under the program in 2012, that would amount to more than $20 million.  That's almost twice the amount that the United States has awarded in contracts to Haitian firms and provided in direct budget support to the Haitian government combined, since the earthquake.

Second, the Department of Homeland Security can selectively grant legal entry to Haitians already approved for a green card -- a permanent residence visa -- on the basis that a family member is a U.S. citizen.  A little more than 112,000 approved Haitians are still on the waiting list, however, because the total number of green cards issued to non-immediate family members is capped worldwide each year.  But there is already a "parole" program for Cubans in similar situations, which allows family members to legally enter the United States and wait for the green card here, rather than in Cuba. The Secretary of Homeland Security is authorized to do exactly the same thing with other countries, and Haiti is a good candidate. Clemens suggests about 16,000 Haitians on the green-card waiting list are spouses or minor children of U.S. green-card holders, for whom the case is particularly compelling -- so let's start with them.

It is worth noting that neither of these proposals would necessarily lead to a larger migrant stock in the United States over the long term. It would simply mean that a few more of the migrants the United States was planning to admit anyway came from Haiti, rather than other countries.  Surely, the desperate situation that Haiti finds itself in, and the powerful boost only a few more migrants would provide to the country's economy, justifies a small reallocation.   

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