Monday, October 18, 2021

Why Haitians are fleeing to the U.S.

Authorities in Chile recently announced a “leapfrog” immigration program to bring roughly 150 Haitians — recently arrived from Haiti via Puerto Rico — into Chile this month. The move raises the question: Why are Haitians and other immigrants who have “leapt” to the U.S. continuing to head northward?

Many have speculated that the exodus is related to the devastating natural disasters that have struck Haiti this year. More than 300,000 people died when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled the capital of Port-au-Prince in January, and numerous more people lost their lives later when both Hurricane Matthew and the cholera epidemic spread across the country.

But while these events may have caused thousands of Haitians to take to the streets for protests, some experts question the significance of the cholera outbreak. A majority of the 200,000 Haitians who have entered the U.S. since January remain healthy, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Most of the people who have crossed into the U.S. have come from the Dominican Republic, an island state in the Caribbean just to the north of Haiti.

“The numbers, especially among Haitians, are shocking,” Bryan Kennedy, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University who studies the movement of Haitians across the U.S.-Dominican border, said. “There are no epidemics in the Dominican Republic.”

While Haitians and Dominicans see Haiti through similar lenses — both are predominantly black, both rely on agriculture and both are heavily dependent on agriculture — their immigration patterns have been very different. As Haitians have been trying to flee the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, many of them have turned to the U.S. as an alternative refuge. According to statistics from Customs and Border Protection, almost 70 percent of Haitian arrivals between Jan. 12 and Nov. 6 came from within the U.S. Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant said as many as 50,000 Haitians had arrived in the U.S.

Ceant said his country should be taking more action to prevent Haiti’s natural disasters. “We need to better organize ourselves, better use our resources, so we can prepare better in the event of disaster,” he said. “Now we’re at the point where we’re living a disaster.”

This immigration debate has come up before. President Barack Obama, during the presidential election campaign, proposed a “Dream Act”-style program, referred to as the Temporary Protected Status program. This would allow some 800,000 Haitians already living in the U.S. to legally remain until their status expired.

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Critics argue that taking advantage of legal immigration programs is a chance for Haitians to obtain expensive education and jobs. Since many of the Haitians coming to the U.S. are well educated, many of the jobs that Haitian immigrants take back home can be very lucrative, said Julia Reischl, an associate professor of sociology at Barnard College in New York. “They can make a lot of money in the income arena,” she said. “At the same time, [because they are here legally], they are the majority in the economy.”

This “leapfrog” migration scheme is not the first time Haitians have taken advantage of legal immigration programs — or if Chile wants to follow suit, it could be.

In April, thousands of people — primarily Haitians, many of whom did not intend to return to their country — descended upon Puerto Rico’s three airports. Many traveled to the United States with fake documents, hoping to join family members already in the country. Others faced hardships in Puerto Rico and hoped to work legally in the U.S. and send their earnings home.

The offer of work permits or legal immigration allows Haitians a chance to come to the U.S. legally, Kennedy said. But even before the Obama administration passed the DREAM Act, many Haitians continued to head north. Kennedy noted that when there was an emergency, like an earthquake, Haitians flooded into the U.S.

“What distinguishes the [Leapfrog] situation from the earlier migration patterns is that these people — the vast majority of them — are here legally,” he said. “For them, it’s not about economic advantages. It’s about survival.”

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