A Thought Experiment: Haitian Migration

As Vipul recently noted, one of the biggest questions surrounding open borders is just how many people would move to a new country. The estimates of doubling world GDP rely on this being a very large number. On the other hand, large numbers of immigrants moving to the first world also increase the concerns surrounding political externalities or the overpopulation and environment effects of migration. The number of immigrants who decide to move can potentially have important consequences for good or ill. At the same time precise estimates of how many people might move are likely to be impossible. We should probably expect at best to come to basic estimates.

But one way to help with that is to receive a multitude of informed opinions on the question and thus I come to you dear readers!

Since examining the entire world at once with this question is likely to be extremely complex, let’s use a particular country as an example: Haiti. Let’s get some basic facts about Haiti down as a way of making this task easier. Haiti’s current population is slightly under 10 million people with about a 1% growth rate under current birth/death/migration rates. The country currently has one of the highest emigration rates in the world at 5.5 people out of every 1000 leaving every year. Current income is also one of the world’s lowest with GDP per capita (purchasing power parity) at about $1,300 a year. This helps contribute to Haiti being one of the countries with the highest wage ratios with the US in a paper written by Michael Clemens meaning the potential economic gain to migrants is among the greatest (see page 11). The United States is home to currently over 500,000 Haitians with most in Florida and New York. According to Gallup polls, about a quarter of the adult Haitian population would like to migrate to the United States in particular. That would be about 1.5 million people (including everyone over the age of 15 as “adults” which depending on Gallup’s definition of adult is likely an overestimate, but then not including any children these migrants may wish to bring).

So my question to readers, if the United States were to open its borders tomorrow how many Haitians do you think would come here? Would everyone expressing an interest come or would economic factors stop them? Would the opening of borders increase how many would want to come? If other developed countries were to open their borders how many Haitians would that draw away from coming to the United States? And how much of a difference would at least partially French-speaking countries like France, Belgium, or Canada opening immigration have on drawing Haitians away from the US? Finally, would there be a difference in the amount of Haitian migration if the US opens its borders generally or if the borders are opened for only Haiti in particular? And would this emigration be a solution for Haiti’s numerous problems?

Chris Hendrix is a Masters student in history in Atlanta, Georgia with an interest in the history of borders. See also:

Chris Hendrix’s personal statement
blog post introducing Chris Hendrix
all blog posts by Chris Hendrix

10 thoughts on “A Thought Experiment: Haitian Migration”

  1. Hi Chris, I think trying to analyze a human migration based on one time event like sudden open of US border to Haitians, might not provide accurate result. If you open the US border tomorrow then definitely majority of Haitian will migrate and the only ones remaining behind will be the ones who cannot afford the cost of moving or have some other very strong reason to stay. But, that number will be minimal. And this event would not be beneficial to either US or Haiti as US would suffer from sudden increase in unemployment and Haiti would lose most of its labor force from which it might be hard to recover from. So, to prevent this, it has to be a gradual change.

    We can take an example of Peurto Rico. Peurto Ricans are US citizens and could move to New York tomorrow. So, why aren’t they doing so. That is because they know they can go in and out of US anytime they please and over 3 millions people have decided to stay in Peurto Rico and not move to US. The same should happen in Haiti’s case. Once Haitians realize they can go in and out of US anytime, some will move but not all. But this has to be done is a gradual process cause it takes time to sink in the notion that they now have the freedom of movement.

    1. Puerto Rico had a GDP per capita of $26,588 in 2011, just over half of U.S. GDP per capita of $48,112, is classified as a high income economy by the world bank, and receives U.S. aid on the scale of half of government expenditures, aid which was instituted in part to stem the flow of migrants:

      “Puerto Rico’s central government, which includes all three branches of government but excludes public corporations and municipalities, has an annual general budget that currently ranges from $8.5 billion to $9 billion in revenues and expenditures.[11] The government also receives more than $4.2 billion annually in subsidies and federal aid from the United States.[12] A substantial portion of this amount is earmarked for public welfare, including funding educational programs (such as Head Start), subsidized housing programs (such as (Section 8 and public housing projects), and a food stamp system called the Nutrition Assistance for Puerto Rico program..”


      Haiti had a GDP per capita of $725.63 in 2011, has terrible problems in non-financial areas of human development, and does not receive the huge American transfer payments that Puerto Rico does. If 30% of Puerto Ricans have moved to the United States, then I would expect a large majority of Haitians to migrate to the United States given open borders, over 70%. Polls and surveys understate the number who would move in response to the changed conditions and increasing exposure to the benefits of migration for friends and relatives.

      1. While my guess would be in the same ballpark, I don’t think it is the right comparison to take numbers only _after_ massive emigration from Puerto Rico. This should, of course, raise the level because of less labor relative to capital (plus additional effects from subsidies). It would be more of a steady state now where massive emigration is off the table.

        I am not familiar with the history of emigration from Puerto Rico. Perhaps if you could supply some data on the time frame over which this emigration occurred, and what the relative position of Puerto Rico versus the US was at the start? Maybe Puerto Rico started out at a level versus the US, somewhat higher, but comparable to that of Haiti vs.the US now, and it took fifty or a hundred years to get to where it is now. If so, Haitian emigration over the next decades could be lower under open borders although it would converge to the level you estimate in the long run.

        Open borders for the French overseas departments, France herself, Canada, and Belgium might also substantially divert emigration away from the US although the US might be the best choice from a purely economic standpoint. One guess from the numbers would be that under open borders for all those countries about a third of Haitian emigrants would head for the francophone countries because they already have some relatives there, and there would also be some emigration to other Caribbean countries.

  2. I have found the following data:

    2 million Haitians in the Dominican Republic
    200,000 in Canada (or maybe only 100,000), mostly in Quebec
    80,000 in the Bahamas
    80,000 in France of whom about 20,000 seem to be in the overseas departments.


    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora_ha%C3%AFtienne_en_France (in French)

    I tried to find out how many Haitians live in Germany. According to the embassy it is only 400.

    Source: http://www.morgenpost.de/berlin/article1238990/Haitianer-bangen-gemeinsam-in-Berlin.html (in German)

    In Switzerland there are 456 Haitians. There is, of course, a francophone part of Switzerland and the Swiss are much better at French than Germans.

    Source: http://www.20min.ch/news/dossier/haiti/story/12369509 (in German)

    In Belgium there are 1,500 to 2,000 Haitians according to the embassy there.

    Source: http://www.lalibre.be/actu/international/reunion-de-famille-pour-les-haitiens-de-belgique-51b8b560e4b0de6db9b9b205 (in French)

    I don’t have the slightest idea of how hard it is to get into these countries for Haitians relatively. But it looks like geographical proximity and linguistic affiliation explain a substantial part of the pattern.

    So maybe if Germany opened its borders for Haitians it would only be trickle (at least at first). I’d think this goes both ways. Whereas Americans would perhaps name Haiti as a desperately poor country that immediately comes to mind, hardly anyone would do this in Germany. Here the response would be something like Sahel or Bangladesh or maybe even India.

    1. “But it looks like geographical proximity and linguistic affiliation explain a substantial part of the pattern.”

      Good data.

      “I don’t have the slightest idea of how hard it is to get into these countries for Haitians relatively.”

      The Dominican Republic is the rest of the island, Hispaniola, where Haiti is located, so it is the only place where migrants can enter by land without paying prohibitively high transport and possibly smuggling fees. Its average income (PPP) is about $10,000.


      ” Many Haitians travel to the Dominican to find seasonal or long-term work in order to send remittances to their families. Some of these Haitian workers, as well as Dominicans of Haitian descent have reported complaints of discrimination against them by the Dominican majority population. Other Haitians who would seek work, instead remain in Haiti, fearing discrimination on the other side of the border. Migration has been taking place since the 1920s, when Haitian laborers were actively encouraged to come work in the thriving Dominican sugar industry. With modernization from the 1960s on, fewer workers were required, and other Dominican industries and services started employing more Haitian workers, often an inexpensive, less regulated labor source with fewer legal protections. Many Haitian women find work in Dominican households, and Haitian men at Dominican construction sites, often leading to the move of an entire family. A large number of migrated Haitian workers have continued to live in the Dominican over several generations. The two governments have been unable to agree upon a legal framework to address the nationality of these descendants, leaving around one million people of Haitian ancestry in the Dominican Republic effectively stateless, restricting their access to health care, education and employment opportunities.”

  3. These are thought-provoking questions, Chris, and they are difficult to answer given the lack of good data that’d be pertinent. One question upon question I would pose is, what data do we need to even start answering these questions?

    Given what I do know, which is that Gallup polling number, I would place my estimate of how many Haitians would come, under any open borders scenario, as pretty close to the 1.5M number. It’d be biased upward or downward based on the type of scenario, but I can’t imagine the 1.5M number being off by an order of magnitude (though, I guess, 15M Haitians is a literally impossible number).

    The main reason I think that number is a good estimate is just the magnitude of the wage gaps. The place premium between Haiti and the US is so high that even if a Haitian were free to migrate elsewhere, it’s difficult to see why they wouldn’t choose the US. It’s difficult for me to imagine the place premium being substantially similar for the Haiti-France pairing, though I could potentially imagine the Haiti-Canada pairing working out, given geographical proximity. I think linguistic proximity would attenuate the number of Haitians bound for the US somewhat, but not really enough to make a significant dent in that 1.5M number. The significant diaspora in the US would I think be a big draw for Haitians too, reducing the cultural barriers to immigration.

    If the US opened its borders to all, again I believe that would attenuate the 1.5M number downward (there would be some crowding out of potential Haitian migrants, no doubt), but not significantly. Few countries really have much worse place premiums than Haiti does compared to the US. And again, geographical proximity is unparalleled; most Haitians in the world are literally a boat ride away from the US.

    If the US opened its borders only to Haiti, I would be pretty firm on the 1.5M number — though I could see that number going up a bit, because I imagine Haitians would feel some warm glow at being the only country in the world embraced as such by the US, and would feel more positively disposed towards giving working/living in the US a try.

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