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Haiti’s Painful Evolution from Promised Land to Migrant-Sending Nation

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Haiti’s Painful Evolution from Promised Land to Migrant-Sending Nation

The Haitian National Palace in Port-au-Prince was heavily damaged after the 2010 earthquake.

The Haitian National Palace in Port-au-Prince was heavily damaged after the 2010 earthquake. (Photo: UN Development Program)

In recent decades Haiti has been predominantly a migrant-sending country, with large numbers of its nationals scattered across the Western hemisphere. Yet it was not always this way. Haiti, the world’s first free Black republic, was for more than a century regarded as a destination for migrants from abroad. As a promised land for formerly enslaved people from the United States, a marketplace for Arab merchants, and then a jewel in the budding U.S. empire, Haiti was the destination for a range of migrants.

The trend has changed more recently. Haiti now has about 1.6 million more of its nationals abroad than it has received from other countries. Haitians make up the largest immigrant group in neighboring Dominican Republic, account for more than 680,000 people in the United States, and have spread throughout the Americas. This migration has captured headlines in the wake of disasters such as a massive earthquake in 2010 that left hundreds of thousands dead or injured and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which devastated large parts of the still-reeling country.

Yet as they have ventured abroad, many Haitian migrants have found themselves unwanted. They have been the target of repeated discrimination in the Dominican Republic and have faced anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Bahamas to Chile. Far from the promise of a liberated island paradise, Haiti, which is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, often finds its nationals denigrated abroad. 

This country profile explores historical and contemporary flows of migrants to and from Haiti, beginning with its independence in the 19th century and proceeding to the present day.

A Dream for the Formerly Enslaved

In 1697 Spain signed the Ryswick Treaty, bringing to an end the Nine Years’ War and surrendering the western section of the island of Hispaniola to France, which renamed it Saint Domingue. Over the next 100 years, Saint Domingue became the richest of Europe’s colonies and an important economic outpost for France. However, as the colonial system grew more and more oppressive, an alliance of enslaved peoples, freed Blacks, and people of mixed race mounted a revolt in Saint Domingue. In 1804 they triumphed and created the Americas’ first independent Black nation—a singular development amid a global system undergirded by slavery. While news from the new nation was censored by colonial powers, which regarded Haiti as a pariah state, U.S. enslaved people and freedmen eventually learned of its independence from sailors, the anti-slavery press, ministers, and other sources.

Soon, followers in the United States were singing the praises of the Haitian Revolution, which became a powerful metaphor of freedom and equality throughout the Atlantic. For their part, Haitian leaders forced the issue of slave emancipation onto the global agenda and offered their country as a haven to the oppressed. The symbolism of the Haitian Revolution resonated as far as Greece.

On January 14, 1804, only days after declaring Haiti’s independence, revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines issued an executive act offering 40 piasters (U.S. $40) per returnee to any ship captain who would repatriate Haiti’s enslaved people and the formerly enslaved who had fled during the revolutionary conflicts. Haiti’s population had been decimated by the conflicts, and to replenish it he tried to recruit 500,000 Africans, indigenous people, and U.S. Blacks, offering them not only freedom but immediate citizenship once they set foot on Haitian soil, provided they first declare themselves Black. Soon after the publication of Dessalines’s decree, many responded to his offer.

Dessalines would not live to advance his dream. In 1806 he was assassinated by a coalition of soldiers disabused by his agrarian policies and authoritarian governing style. The country was divided first into three regions and then consolidated into two: a republic in the south and west and a kingdom in the north. Dessalines’s initiative was formally codified into Article 44 of the southern republic’s 1816 constitution, which stipulated that “all Africans and Indians, and the descendants of their blood, born in the colonies or in foreign countries, who come to reside in the Republic of Haiti will be recognized as Haitians, but will enjoy the right of citizenship only after one year of residence.” That new law was first tested months later, in January 1817, when seven enslaved Jamaicans “commandeered the vessel on which they were serving and sailed to southern Haiti, where they found—as they had expected—legal protection, freedom from slavery, and access to Haitian citizenship,” according to historian Ada Ferrer.

After declaring himself king of Haiti’s north, Henri Christophe sought a rapprochement with Britain, fearing U.S. and French interventions threatened Haiti’s independence; he encouraged migration by recruiting the assistance of the African Institution, an English abolitionist society. Through it he made contacts with prominent Englishmen who would urge him to allow representatives of the Triennial Convention, a congress of various U.S. abolitionist societies, to visit and investigate the possibilities of settling U.S. freedmen in his kingdom. At the same time, the American Colonization Society, which was founded to resettle formerly U.S. enslaved people in Africa, became interested in also sending its supporters to Haiti. One member, Prince Saunders, had been planning to move to Sierra Leone but changed his mind after meeting with Christophe. Working with others, Saunders successfully recruited a large cohort of U.S. freedmen to emigrate to Haiti. After moving to Haiti himself, Saunders served as Christophe’s personal secretary.

Migration to a United Haiti

Christophe died in 1820 and his northern kingdom was united with the southern republic; subsequent Haitian leaders would continue trying to bring settlers from the United States. In 1823, President Jean Pierre Boyer reiterate the call for the American Colonization Society to focus on Haiti and not West Africa. He promised Jonathas Granville, his representative in New York and leader of the migration project, to pay for all prospective migrants’ personal expenses. In addition, he also pledged “the government will give fertile lands to those who wish to cultivate them, will advance to them nourishment, tools, and other things of indispensable necessity, until they shall be sufficiently established to do without that assistance.”

Granville recruited 13,000 freedmen to move to Haiti. Shortly after their migration, however, all of those who were able to return to the United States did so; only 13 remained in Haiti. The migrants found themselves resented by Haitians who were jealous of the special status bestowed upon them.

Still, the initiative to resettle formerly enslaved people in Africa and Haiti found strong support from some sectors of the U.S. Black intelligentsia. In their view, it was the best means of escaping discrimination and oppression in the United States.

The colonization movement was given a credible platform by the first African-American owned and operated newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. In the newspaper’s first edition, on March 16, 1827, founders John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish declared that Haiti’s establishment and success showed that Blacks could achieve knowledge and progress despite the discrimination and injustice they faced. In its editorials, Freedom's Journal continued to extoll the benefits of migration to Haiti, where newcomers would find a safe refuge while strengthening the Black nation and transforming it into a champion of Black freedom.

Conversely, abolitionist leaders including Reverend Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth mounted a strong campaign against the movement. The United States was their country, they said, and they had no intention of leaving it. Instead, they demanded the immediate abolition of slavery and full and equal rights for all in the United States.

The New Colonization Plan: Black Self-Determination

Yet the colonization movement gained crucial assistance from high places. In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln urged Congress to appropriate funds to purchase new territories that could be colonized by formerly enslaved people. Legislators subsequently appropriated $600,000 to finance the emigration of previously enslaved people from the District of Columbia.

Nicholas Geffrard, a person of mixed race who was Boyer’s successor as president of Haiti, continued lending support to formerly U.S. enslaved people looking to emigrate. He retained the services of abolitionist James Redpath, appointed him the lofty title of “General Agent of the Haytian Bureau of Emigration,” and granted him U.S. $20,000 to open emigration offices in Boston. Redpath recruited an estimated 5,000 prospective immigrants, of whom about 2,000 actually moved to Haiti between 1860 and 1862.

Once settled in Haiti, the immigrants became quickly disillusioned by the unstable political situation and the proliferation of deadly diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, typhoid, smallpox, and cholera, which decimated their ranks. Survivors informed their families, relatives, and the broader U.S. public of their many setbacks in Haiti, which prompted other prospective migrants to refuse to travel.

Further migration by U.S. Black residents would dwindle on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation and the adoption of constitutional amendments barring slavery and giving rights of citizenship and the franchise to former victims of slavery. At the same time, the Haitian government disengaged from the colonization scheme, bringing explorations about large-scale United States-Haiti migration to a close.

Migration from the Middle East

The unsuccessful attempts of the U.S. freedmen to settle in Haiti were soon followed by new migration from the Middle East. The first contingent of Christian Arab immigrants reached Haiti in 1891. By 1903, when they were barred from entering the country, around 10,000 had settled in coastal cities, yet a majority did not apply for Haitian citizenship even though it was easily obtained and encouraged by law. Between 1891 and 1903, just 159 Arab immigrants opted for Haitian citizenship. As stated by historian Brenda Gayle Plummer, the nationality issue “undermined Haitian society in that nationality determined who had recourse to external diplomatic or military force… Occasionally, members of the same family were variously French, German, British, and American.”

Finally, in 1905, as anti-Arab sentiment reached its paroxysm, the Haitian government curtailed Syrian migration, a decision at the time understood to prevent all Arabs from settling. In the Haitian press and during political debates concerning “the Syrian problem,” Arab immigrants were denounced as birds of prey, blood suckers, and vultures. L’Anti-Syriens, an anti-Arab tract, deprecated the Levantine immigrants and demanded stripping Haitian citizenship from those who had acquired it and expelling them. Despite the disparagement, these immigrants would thrive through the years. Eventually, they entered the ranks of the mixed-race elite with whom they share control of Haiti’s important financial sectors, especially import-export trade.

From a Pariah State to an Apparent State and a Migrant-Sending Nation

The first large-scale migration out of Haiti occurred during its revolution, when French plantation owners fled to the United States, bringing in tow the people whom they had enslaved. The second wave coincided with the 1915 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Haiti and its transformation into a dependent and “apparent state,” or a country with the modern structures of government and a distinctive set of institutions and political procedures yet with little or no actual power to set its national agenda and meet the needs of its population.

Invaders from the United States claimed they were occupying the country to modernize it, implement the rule of law, and protect lives. In reality, the U.S. intervention was motivated by the desire to check the growing influence of Germany, one of the protagonists of World War I, which was felt in Haitian politics and its import-export commerce. As writers Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl explained, by the time World War I was declared there were around 200 Haitian-German families in the country, and German commercial and political interests stretched widely.

However, contrary to its stated intentions, Washington established a military dictatorship and placed U.S. Marines in charge of ruling the country. Then, at bayonet point, it forced the Senate, which was responsible for electing the president, to install its chosen candidate, Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave. A few days after the election, as the United States had done in Cuba and would later replicate in the Dominican Republic, U.S. leadership presented the new president with a ten-year treaty. Among other mandates, the treaty stipulated that “an American-appointed financial and general receiver of customs would have extensive control over Haitian government finances, and Haiti was forbidden to modify its custom duties or increase its public debt without United States approval,” Hans Schmidt, the author of a definitive book on the U.S. occupation, explained.

Together with many of their Haitian counterparts, U.S. officials then made false promises to poor Haitians, enticing them to migrate to Cuba and the Dominican Republic to work in U.S.-owned sugar factories. Haitian emigration subsequently expanded dramatically. In 1912, only about 200 Haitians migrated to Cuba on their own; in 1916, 5,000 did so as contract or guest workers. By 1920, Cuba counted a Haitian population of no fewer than 70,000 people, and that year alone 30,000 Haitians left Haiti for Cuba.

Haitians in Cuba and the Dominican Republic

In Cuba, Haitian migrants worked on sugarcane plantations under harsh conditions and for very low pay, albeit at generally higher wages than what they could expect in Haiti. Racist sentiments prevented these migrants from enjoying their full legal rights, no matter how long they lived in the country. Furthermore, to create a wedge between them and the Afro-Cuban populations, Cuban political and social outlets played on stereotypes about Haiti’s alleged backwardness to warn its citizens about becoming too friendly with the new arrivals. Whenever the Cuban economy experienced malaise, the Black West Indian cane cutters, most especially Haitian migrants, were the first blamed.

Between 1902 and 1906, as the Cuban economy tanked, the Cuban government passed legislation to curb—and if possible, end—the immigration of Black migrants, particularly Haitians and Jamaicans. Later, during the Great Depression, as global sugar prices spiraled downward, the Cuban government significantly increased repatriation drives against immigrants, making them perfect scapegoats for Cubans’ woes.

Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic has its own dynamic because of the two countries’ shared border. As in Cuba, these workers have been treated with contempt. Also, fear of the “Haitianization” of the Dominican population, advanced by the Dominican media and politicians, led many Dominicans to despise Haitian migrants. As a result, various Dominican regimes have denied these immigrants access to Dominican nationality and have refused to recognize their Dominican-born children as Dominican citizens, contrary to the birthright citizenship enshrined in the country’s constitution.

There are two crucial moments in this history of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. The first occurred on October 2, 1937, when Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo sent the army to decimate the entire “Haitian” population living along the border, across from the Massacre River—an ominous name if ever there was one. To distinguish between Black Dominicans and Black Haitians, the executioners would ask anyone suspected of being a Haitian to pronounce the Spanish word perejil or parsley. Those who could not pronounce it as a native were summarily killed with bayonets, knives, and machetes—not guns, so the soldiers would avoid alerting their future victims. As many as 30,000 victims are estimated to have been killed during the Parsley Massacre or El Corte (“the cutting”).

Although he was informed of the slaughter, Haitian President Sténio Vincent refused to acknowledge it and declined to condemn Trujillo because, being financially indebted to the Dominican dictator, he feared blackmail. In the end, it was only after the United States, Mexico, and Cuba pressured the Dominican regime to pay reparations to massacre survivors and victims’ family members that the Trujillo regime agreed to pay $525,000 in compensation to the Haitian government in 1938. Few of the victims or their families received their part of the settlement, however. According to Heinl and Heinl, “the Haitian government compensated survivors at about two cents a head. At this time, a good pig would have brought $30 in the market.”

The second pivotal incident concerning Haitian migrants and people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic is much more recent. In 2010, the Dominican government called for a revision of the constitution to invalidate its birthright jus soli specification. On September 23, 2013, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic issued a ruling retroactively revoking the Dominican citizenship of Haitian migrants and their children born in the country since 1929, classifying them instead as “people in transit” ineligible for Dominican citizenship. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 133,770 people became stateless after the court decision.

The high court’s decree inspired worldwide condemnation and raised fears about a boycott of the Dominican tourism industry, which is a significant source of jobs and a foreign currency generator. The president backpedaled, and in 2014 the legislature proposed legalizing the status of a significant number of those whose citizenship had been stripped, even though they did not need this intervention because their papers were in order. Just 19,000 Dominicans of Haitian ancestry obtained Dominican citizenship—a fraction of those estimated to have had it taken away. As a result of the constant hostility and harassment faced by Dominicans of Haitian background, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that 160,452 people voluntarily moved back to Haiti between mid-June 2015 and December 2016. Another 54,510 were officially deported via Dominican-Haitian border crossings.

The Era of Haitian Migration to the United States

Haitian migration to the United States began in earnest with the passing of the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which abolished the discriminatory national-origin quotas that had been a pillar of U.S. immigration law since the 1920s. The new law instead prioritized family reunification and skills, ending an era that favored European migration over all other arrivals. Since there was a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled workers in the United States during that period, due to the effects of the Vietnam War and the strength of the U.S. economy, many Haitians were able to secure visas, not only as highly trained professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers, but also as seamstresses, shoe and cabinet makers, and tailors.

Yet not every Haitian could secure a visa. Starting in the 1970s, many Haitians took to the high seas in flimsy and rough-hewn skiffs and landed on the Florida shores. Designated as “boat people,” their refugee applications were denied, with the U.S. government arguing that they were fleeing Haiti for economic and not political reasons, despite the increasingly draconian policies of the dictatorships of François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier. The Duvaliers, meanwhile, had endorsed Washington’s policy of communist containment in the Caribbean basin.

Washington’s concern about boat people persisted through the aftermath of the 1991 military coup overthrowing democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. During the 1990s, thousands of Haitian migrants were intercepted at sea and detained at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The vast majority were not granted asylum and were instead returned to Haiti.

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake destroyed parts of Port-au-Prince and surrounding communities, killing as many as 300,000 people and further degrading the prospects for the surviving population. In the wake of the earthquake, the United States granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians who had previously been in the country; the government forcefully warned others not to follow. Most deportations to Haiti were suspended, but fully resumed in 2016.

Still, the number of Haitians in the United States tripled in size from 1990 to 2018, when the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there were 687,000 Haitians in the country. The United States is home to more Haitian migrants than any other country.

Haitian Migration to South America

After the earthquake, many Haitians, feeling desperate about their future, opted to relocate to countries across South America, particularly Brazil, which was experiencing a construction boom ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Brazil’s economy was the world’s sixth largest at that time, and the government invested more than $31 billion in infrastructure to prepare for the global games.

It did not take long for Haitians to learn about job opportunities and the prospects of a better life in Brazil. Haiti is full of ardent soccer fans. Crucially, the Brazilian army also had been in the leadership of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, called MINUSTAH, and helped to propagate Brazil’s demand for workers to build roads, hotels, ports, and sports stadia.

Facing a potential labor shortage at that crucial moment, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff somewhat relaxed the country’s immigration laws. She supported Haitian migrants’ initiatives to move to Brazil and encouraged giving humanitarian visas to all qualified Haitians seeking to migrate.

Those who could not secure visas, meanwhile, sought to enter the country illegally through the Amazon region. About 39,000, or 46 percent of the estimated 85,000 Haitians who entered Brazil between 2010 and 2017, did so via the Amazon. Their travel was facilitated by a network of smugglers who escorted them from Haiti to Brazil, charging between $1,500 and $6,000. Amid this exodus, Brazil became the fourth most popular destination for Haitian migrants, after the United States, the Dominican Republic, and Canada.

In late 2014 and early 2015, however, the Brazilian political system became mired in scandals and corruption. The economy began to worsen. As a result, many Haitians left Brazil for other destinations, most especially Chile and elsewhere in South America.

Often, however, Haitians’ arrival was followed by an increase in nativist sentiments. In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera rose to power in 2017 on the back of anti-immigrant sentiment, blaming new arrivals from Haiti and elsewhere for crime, drugs, and other societal ills. In the Bahamas, where Haitians account for nearly half of the country’s 63,000 immigrants, anti-Haitian sentiment peaked after the 2019 Hurricane Dorian, with many blaming immigrants for instability in the storm’s wake.

Money Sent Back Home

The 1.6 million Haitians living outside the country have helped build one of the most economically important flows of remittances in the world. According to the World Bank, remittances to Haiti added up to nearly $3.3 billion in 2019 and accounted for 37 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP)—a share larger than every country in the world except Tonga. Remittances have increased in recent years, spiking in the wake of disasters that have befallen the country.

Meanwhile, the government has been marked by corruption, gridlock, and weak democratic institutions. Public spending on social programs in Haiti is lower than for its Latin American and Caribbean neighbors, and so many families rely on remittances to help with everyday costs such as education and food.

Conclusion

Haiti emerged in 1804 as the torchbearer of liberty to many oppressed populations and became a desired destination for migrants. Yet the lofty dreams of its challenges to European hegemony and colonialism were never quite realized. Earlier generations of immigrants to Haiti were quickly disillusioned, and over the course of the 20th century, as the country experienced political upheaval, deep poverty, and natural disaster, the country transitioned into a migrant-sending country, first to its Caribbean neighbors and then more widely.   

From Dessalines on, Haiti’s presidency has been a valuable prize in an unprincipled and bloody competition among corrupt and dishonest strongmen who were supported along the way by a rotating cast of elites and intervention by foreign powers—including the United States.

In this chaotic situation, the Black urban masses and those in rural areas have received minimal benefits from the state and their basic human rights have been repeatedly trampled. Since the late 1960s, Haitians from all socioeconomic background have looked to migration as a solution to their predicament. Now, for many Haitians, the best way to get ahead is to get out. Tragically, large amounts of emigration come in quick response to natural and humanitarian disasters that have plagued the country, the problems of which are only compounded by poor governance and persistent political turmoil. The problem is made all the worse by effects of climate change, which has the potential to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather including hurricanes and heavy rain. Until Haitian officials are held accountable for their actions and prioritize the wellbeing of their charges, its people may continue to look elsewhere to improve their prospects.

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