Open Borders Is the Best Way to Help Haiti

Advocates have suggested open borders (here and here) as a way to help Haiti, which has a long history of poverty, environmental disasters, political turmoil, and human rights abuses. Yet after a devastating earthquake in 2010 led to billions of dollars of outside help for Haiti in the form of humanitarian and development aid, as well as debt relief, has Haiti improved significantly? Has massive aid been the solution to Haiti’s problems? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no, and open borders as a solution for much of Haiti’s misery continues to be as important as ever.

Even after the infusion of aid, Haiti has a per capita GDP of $1,800, placing it 209th out of 230 countries, with the 230th being the poorest. The Associated Press  recently described Haiti as a “…deeply poor nation, with an official unemployment rate of about 40 percent and the World Bank says more than 6 million out of roughly 10.4 million inhabitants live under the national poverty line of $2.44 per day.” Statistics from three years ago show that about 23 percent of young children in Haiti were chronically undernourished and 4 percent were acutely malnourished.

Haiti also has been been cited as one of five countries where slavery is most prevalent. Human Rights Watch states that thousands of children from poor families are sent to live with wealthier families in order to provide them with schooling in exchange for domestic work, but often the children do not receive an education and are abused.  Human Rights Watch also notes “long-standing human rights problems” in Haiti, as well as “concerns about the resurgence of political violence.”

Aid from other countries clearly hasn’t and might never transform Haiti. Per capita GDP has increased from $1200 in the years 2009-2012 to $1800 in 2014, but it is difficult to know to what extent this increase is due to foreign aid, remittances (see below), or other factors. The bottom line is that Haiti continues to be very poor, along with suffering from other problems.  Foreign Policy in Focus concludes that “four years and billions of dollars later, conditions do not appear to have improved for Haitians affected by the earthquake; in fact, it can be argued that things are worse.” Similarly,  GlobalPost, referring to American aid for Haiti, states that “the extent to which that money is creating sustainable progress remains unclear even four years after it began.”

While some good has been accomplished in Haiti because of outside help (see here and here and here), problems with its delivery have been identified. U.S. government aid for Haiti has largely gone to American companies and non-profits, and The Guardian notes that “Critics have argued for years that donors’ practice of spending aid money through organisations located in their own countries has hampered efforts to build self-sufficiency abroad, and works to the detriment of local businesses and industries.”  And the impact of nearly $500 million raised by the American Red Cross for Haiti since the earthquake has been underwhelming, according to a recent investigation by National Public Radio and ProPublica. The groups found “… a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success…” associated with the funds. The American Red Cross built a total of six permanent homes in Haiti, even though housing is the area in which “the Red Cross made its biggest promises.” An article on the NBC News site states that “to Jonathan Katz, author of ‘The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,’ the aid story is one of good intentions and bad policy, short-term fixes without a ground-breaking long game, Band-Aids over self-sufficiency.” (See here and here and here for additional criticism of aid efforts.)

On the other hand, emigration is much more promising than foreign aid, both for the Haitians who leave Haiti and for those who stay behind. Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development argues that international migration is “the cheapest and most powerful economic tool” for helping Haitians.  He states that “the large majority of Haitians who have ever escaped poverty have done so by leaving Haiti.”  Citing research by others that was published in 2008, he notes that Haitian immigrants to the U.S. gain a 680% wage increase due to the migration.  He adds that “for those who don’t move, remittances… unlike foreign aid, generally go directly into the pockets of Haitian families. They are spent almost entirely on locally-produced goods and services…”  The CIA World Factbook notes that for Haiti “remittances are the primary source of foreign exchange, equaling one-fifth of GDP and representing more than five times the earnings from exports in 2012.”  Mr. Clemens concludes that “migration has been a principal cause of convergence, to date, between the incomes of Haitians and Americans.”  (He does suggest that the gains to migrants might be diminished under open borders.)

There are more than half a million Haitian immigrants in the U.S.  And many more Haitians want to come. A Gallup poll indicates that, if given the opportunity, about a quarter of Haiti’s adults would move permanently to the U.S.

However, under the status quo of border controls, the ability of Haitians to emigrate to the United States is limited. The U.S. has worked hard to keep many from coming. Since 1981 the U.S. Coast Guard has been interdicting, or intercepting, Haitian migrants traveling by boat to the U.S. Under a 1981 agreement with Haiti, the U.S. returns migrants to Haiti but ostensibly does not repatriate refugees. A study by the former Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) found that from 1981 to 1990 almost 400 Haitian vessels were interdicted, 21,000 Haitians were returned home, and only six Haitians were allowed into the U.S. for a full asylum hearing, despite a “high incidence of serious human rights violations in Haiti during that period.” (from Stephen Legomsky, The USA and the Caribbean Interdiction Program, 2006) Since 1990, tens of thousands more Haitians have been intercepted and sent home. (See here and here.) It was reported  that as a group of Haitians was forced back to Port-au-Prince in 1995, one of the returnees, handcuffed and carried down the gangplank, moaned, with “tears streaming down his cheeks,” “’I don’t want to come back to a country like this and die in the streets.’” And the interdictions continue, as indicated by statistics for fiscal year 2014.

Even after the earthquake struck Haiti, the New York Times reported that a U.S. Air Force plane flew over Haiti broadcasting a message from the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., who said in the message, meant to dissuade Haitians from fleeing to the U.S. on boats, “’If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.’” The Times also reported that the Coast Guard patrolled Haitian waters, ready to intercept anyone trying to escape. Moreover, the U.S. denied many seriously injured people permission to enter the U.S. for treatment. Only 23 were allowed to enter the U.S. for treatment, as well as some orphaned children.

Many have sought a better life in the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispanola, but many have experienced hardship there. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians, both those from Haiti and their offspring born in the Dominican Republic, live there. Minority Rights Group International states that Haitians there experience discrimination based on their skin color and culture. In addition, “they earn 60 per cent less than average Dominicans. They often do not have access to proper nutrition or adequate health care due to poor pay, their illegal status and fear of deportation.” Most sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic are Haitian. Conditions for the workers are poor, and workers are sometimes coerced into working. Recently, the Dominican Republic has threatened to deport many Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. A court ruling in 2013 took away Dominican citizenship from children of Haitian migrants. Similarly, the Bahamas requires noncitizens, including those born in the Bahamas, to have passports, “a rule that human rights groups say unfairly targets people of Haitian descent,” according to the New York Times, and there have been immigration raids in “predominately Haitian shantytowns.” (See also here.) Under open borders, Haitian migrants could avoid these inhospitable destinations, and these countries could not use immigration restrictions as a tool to discriminate against Haitians.

Beyond the tremendous good that could be realized for Haitians through open borders, an open borders policy would help redress the harm U.S. foreign policy has caused the country over two centuries. Haiti, a French colony largely populated by African slaves, won its independence from France in a bloody struggle in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Once independence was achieved, however, the U.S. and European powers were hostile to the new republic. Randall Robinson notes that after independence “the United States, France and western Europe would quickly join together in a program of measures designed to defeat the new black republic’s prospects for success. For the next two hundred years, Haiti would be faced with active hostility from the world’s most powerful community of nations. The new country endured a variety of attacks, some imposed concurrently, others consecutively, including military invasions, economic embargoes, gunboat blockades, reparations demands, trade barriers, diplomatic quarantines, subsidized armed subversions, media volleys of public traducement, and a string of twentieth-century U.S.-armed black dictators, beginning with Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, who rose to power in 1957…” (p. 18, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President, NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2007) Mr. Robinson concludes that “the Haitian economy has never recovered from the financial havoc France (and America) wreaked upon it, during and after slavery.” (p. 22) Michael Falco, in a letter to the New York Times, similarly writes that “Haiti spent its early existence handcuffed by crippling reparations to France — a penalty for rejecting the shackles of slavery. At the peak of this debt, Haiti was paying 80 percent of its national budget to foreign creditors. After the debt was ‘paid off,’ a string of brutal dictators — many propped up by the United States — ransacked the country’s coffers. Haiti never had a chance…”

In summary, while foreign aid has achieved some good for the Haitian people, open borders has the potential to enormously help. Haitian immigrants in economically advanced countries could earn much more than they could in Haiti, remittances could benefit those who remain in Haiti, U.S. interdictions of migrants could stop, Haitian migrants could bypass countries that mistreat them, and the world could begin to make up for its historic abuse of Haiti. Of the groups that could benefit most from a world with open borders, the Haitian people are among those at the top of the list.

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

2 thoughts on “Open Borders Is the Best Way to Help Haiti”

  1. I’m not convinced giving a green card will solve problems in Haiti. What’s the status of giving a refund (reparations) to Haiti and other Caribbean islands?
    Have you heard of the Caricom Organization, Reparations for Native Genocide and Slavery (http://www.caricom.org/jsp/pressreleases/press_releases_2014/pres51_14.jsp)

    The most significant monetary request of the proposal is the debt cancellation. In Haiti’s case for example an author by the name of Robert W. Strayer authored a world history textbook and described “an international petition [that] called on the French government to repay some $17 billion, effectively returning the “independence debt” extorted from Haiti [some] 185 years earlier” (Strayer, p. 535).

    A refund to Haiti and other Caribbean islands would certainly catapult the countries into the 21st century, and help the people of the islands. The European countries (including France) could fulfill this because it is the payment for labor that was never paid. Haiti’s request to France is the refund of the “payment of 150 million gold francs in compensation for the loss of its richest colony and its ‘property’ in slaves” (Strayer, p. 535, line 5).
    It is fair for the European countries to pay the reparations because taking human beings against their will is kidnapping. The request for reparations should also include the 185 years of inflationary rate or a cost of living expense. The reparations payment should be made in gold, because it was paid in gold not a floating currency that could be devalued after the countries start making the payments.

    On a similar topic of opening borders, I’d love to hear an open discussion about North America (U.S.A., Canada and Mexico) and Central America (Latin American including the Caribbean Islands) countries adopting a common fiat currency and establish an “Americas Union” like the European Union, and allow citizens from participating countries cross borders to work and establish businesses.
    What do you think about that?

    If the economy of a country is reformed, why would anyone want to leave? It’s like the East Berlin wall, no one wanted to stay (in the East) so they try to get out for a better life (in the West). Once the wall came down things changed in Germany.

    Could an Americas Union accomplish the same objectives the European Union has accomplished?
    Do you think the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) fulfilled its purpose and have all three major countries benefited from it?

    Would such an “Americas union” literally open borders for workers on both sides of a border/island and could one common currency promote economic growth?

    And lastly, where do you see Cuba in 20-years if the embargo is eventually lifted?

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