On Sunday, at least 11 people were killed when a boat carrying 28 Haitian nationals sank off the coast of Abaco, an island in the Bahamas. The BBC reported that seven people have so far been found alive, and the U.S. Coast Guard is still searching for missing bodies.
The migrants were headed for the United States when the overcrowded vessel ran aground. The tragedy is a reminder that in spite of the danger, Haitians still plan risky passages to the United States on a regular basis.
Not everyone completes the journey, but those who do can have a surprisingly beneficial effect on the quality of life for those they have left behind in Haiti.
In fact, Haitian immigrants -- and the remittances they send back -- represent a potentially powerful solution to some of the country's most endemic problems.
Haitian immigration to the United States first picked up in the 1960s and 1970s; many sought refuge from the despotic regime of then-President Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, who was succeeded by his equally tyrannical son Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier. Even after the latter's ouster in 1986, political instability and violence plagued the country. Poverty is widespread and the land suffers from a depletion of natural resources. Moreover, infrastructure is underdeveloped, which had tragic consequences following the massive earthquake of January 2010.
When the quake hit Haiti, the capital city of Port-au-Prince was largely demolished. In the chaos, over 250,000 died and many more were injured. Still, today, hundreds of thousands remain displaced and many endure harsh conditions in overcrowded settlement camps.
In defiance of expectations, reports CNN, Haitian immigration to the United States has not spiked since the natural disaster -- the stream of Haitian migrants, often in overcrowded boats, has been relatively steady in recent years.
What did change following the earthquake were public attitudes. In 2010, global sympathies in the wake of disaster temporarily altered the legal status of many Haitian immigrants in the United States.
A Lukewarm Welcome
A June report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) detailed the changing legal status of Haitian immigrants over the last few years.
In the United States, Haitians were given Temporary Protected Status (TPS) just after the earthquake. This rule applied to some Haitians who had come to the United States illegally, preventing their deportation due to Haiti's inability to receive any returning emigrants. TPS for Haitians has been extended through January 2013.
In December 2010, however, the United States announced that it would resume deportations for any Haitians who had a U.S. court conviction for a felony, or at least two misdemeanors. This resulted in the January 2011 expulsion of 26 people, who were subsequently detained in Haitian holding cells for almost two weeks.
One of these deportees, a 34-year-old man named Wildrick Guerrier, became ill with cholera-like symptoms and passed away. This caused some uproar over the deportation program, and the United States halted the practice momentarily.
But in April 2011, the United States once again implemented a renewal of deportations for convicted Haitian immigrants. The so-called April 1 Policy was meant to allow for a more thorough consideration of mitigating factors, such as an immigrant's duration of residence in the United States, family ties, or significant medical issues.
TPS still stands, meaning that non-convicted Haitians can remain in the United States. But the situatuon is temporary, and according to the OHCHR report, the United States continues to deport approximately 40-50 persons to Haiti each month.
Furthermore, the study found that many of the circumstances surrounding these deportations were questionable. While the United States has a written policy that takes humanitarian factors into account, it appears that this policy is not being fully implemented.
Tugging At Bootstraps
An illegal Haitian immigrant to the United States risks a lifetime of adversity and difficulty.
Those who reach the U.S. and settle to live and work there often face endemic prejudice. Those who are returned to Haiti also face ostracism, as deportees are highly stigmatized in Haitian society, according to the OCHCR. And then there are those who never make it to the U.S., whose deaths at sea often represent a failed last hope for bereaved family members.
It may seem odd that Haitian citizens continue to brave the dangerous 700-mile journey from Haiti to Florida, especially considering the whole new set of risks they will face even after making it onto dry land. But it is not just self-preservation that motivates many Haitians to leave their homeland; these immigrants have actually become Haiti's most reliable source of funding, making them an important key to the country's ongoing development.
Unlike aid money or economic investment, remittances are not beholden to the changing tides of domestic politics in donor countries. They are not liable to end up in the coffers of foreign firms and banks, and they are only minimally held up by red tape.
It is the one source of income that most quickly makes its way into the hands of the families and individuals who need it most.
A Terrible Record
Foreign Policy reports that the estimated 535,000 Haitian migrants in the United States remit up to $2 billion each year, which actually exceeds the value of U.S. aid funding. In fact, much of the foreign aid that was promised to Haiti since the quake has not been disbursed, or will likely not reach its intended destination.
For example, only about half of the cash promised by donors to Haiti for 2010-2011 had been disbursed by [the end of 2011] -- and the figure for U.S.-given aid is only about 30 percent. There is still a huge gap between donor disbursement and [its] impact on the ground; a lot of the resources have been disbursed only as far as implementing agencies like NGOs and [other] international agencies, many of whom have yet to spend the cash, said the report.
Even when money is not involved, international efforts to help stabilize Haiti have a record that is spotty at best.
Aid oversight, for example, has never been satisfactorily established. A panel called the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which was created to help organize the disbursement of aid for development projects in Haiti, was established in April 2010. Its mandate expired in October 2011. It was never renewed.
And in one of the worst development debacles in recent memory, the UN's presence in Haiti has inadvertently led to a devastating outbreak of cholera in the country. Peacekeeping troops from Nepal are suspected of carrying the bacteria with them to a base in the town of Meille in October 2010. The poorly regulated disposal of human waste there led to an outbreak that spread rapidly along the Latem River.
In a country already burdened with poor water sanitation infrastructure and no previous exposure to the dehydrating disease, the effects were devastating. About 5 percent of the population has been infected with cholera. Over 7,050 have died. The UN has not assumed responsibility.
The incident sparked protests across the country. Meanwhile, the continued displacement of thousands of Haitians and the slow progression of repairs in Port-au-Prince have many Haitians losing faith in the efficacy of international assistance. Many are taking matters into their own hands and boarding boats that can take them beyond their borders.
Back on Dry Land
Sunday night's tragedy proves the danger of journeys like this. But for the hundreds of thousands of Haitians on U.S. soil today, the migration was worth it; they've seen their families' situations improve directly as a result of their efforts.
The 11-and-counting Haitians who died off the coast of Abaco won't get that chance. Coast Guard District Chief Captain Brendan McPherson said on Tuesday that Sunday's loss of life was tragic and could have been prevented.
As we continue our efforts to locate any survivors, the Coast Guard urges family members everywhere to plead with loved ones overseas who might wish to immigrate to the U.S. to only do so through safe and lawful means, he said, according to CNN.
But considering the stringency of U.S. deportation policies, it may be the very definition of lawful that needs changing. For instance, those who survived Sunday's wreck are likely to be deported back to Haiti; they don't qualify for TPS since they are arriving now and were not previously residing in the U.S.
Whether they should be deported or not is a matter of much contention. Many have argued that the United States should open up the border between the two countries, which would result in more remittances. Expanding work-visa programs and easing deportations could help save money in the long run, since the aid that flows via remittances comes not from the U.S. government but from the migrants themselves. And Haitian migrants could be less likely to make dangerous, secretive voyages if U.S. policies were more welcoming.
Such legislation is, at best, a long way off -- not least because the United States is in the middle of a presidential election season, an environment in which a professed support for the liberalization of immigration laws could amount to political suicide.
Meanwhile, as long as the situation in Haiti remains dire, Sunday's tragedy is not likely to stop Haitian migrants from embarking on risky trips in search of better opportunities.