Haiti: A migration crisis?

María Atuesta,  CLALS Postdoctoral Fellow, reflects on the Symposium Haitian Migration Through The Americas, hold in Aprill 22 in collaboration witg The Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Migration (CSERI).

In September 2021 Haitian migration at the US-Mexico border garnered significant media attention when US border patrol agents on horseback were captured on camera corralling Haitian asylum seekers. Media headlines declared a “Haitian migration crisis,” with estimates of more than tens of thousands of Haitian migrants waiting at the border. Civil rights groups condemned the treatment against migrants revealed in the grotesque images, while federal authorities declared that they would be suspending the use of horses at the border. At the height of events, deportations of families and individuals back to Haiti continued, and, perhaps, to discourage further migration, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reminded migrants in an official statement that the border was not open for those taking the “irregular migration path” to the US. 

Aware of all this media attention, Tulia Falleti Director of the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies, Chenoa Flippen Director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Immigration, and me realized that we needed better understandings of the migration pathways facing many families and individuals who are forced to leave their homes. Particularly, those facing families and individuals coming from Haiti.

Hence, we decided to organize a symposium about the past, present and future of Haiti. The goal of the symposium was to make emphasis on the repeated patterns and geopolitical articulations that help us understand migration from Haiti today and help us get a glimpse into the future to discuss what can and is to be done to ameliorate the difficult situation that many Haitian citizens face. We invited a diverse and inspiring group of people to talk about these issues. Our guest speakers were: Mamyrah Douge-Proser, a professor who has written extensively about Black and Haitian social movements; Guerline M. Jozef, an activist who has dedicated her life to support Haitian and Black migrants at the US-Mexico border; Alex Dupuy, a prolific scholar who has written numerous books and articles about social, economic, and political developments in Haiti; and Georges E. Fouron, a professor and a migrant from Haiti who introduced the first discussions about transnationalism and how it is experienced by Haitians. To moderate the discussions, we invited two of our own, UPenn professors, Grace Sanders Johnson and Fernando Chang Muy. I should also add the name of Evelyne Laurent-Perrault, who is an external affiliated faculty of the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and a historian of the African Diaspora. She was an active contributor in each of the discussions that we had during the symposium.

In the following paragraphs I summarize the main points of what I learned from the discussions. I do this while problematizing a common notion, or should I say a widespread ideology. I identify this ideology as one that portrays Haiti as a country in permanent crisis, isolated from the rest of the world; a poor country condemned by its own nature. This ideology has been used to explain the problems that Haiti has faced, including the current situation of widespread forced migration. I argue that this ideology is misleading and is not very useful to understand migration from Haiti today.

To open the discussion of why the ideology of crisis is wrong and misleading to understand current migration from Haiti it is important start by putting Haiti back at the center. What does this mean? It means realizing that this is a tiny country that has played a grand role in history as the first independent black led republic of what the Europeans called “the new world.” Not only did it become the first free black led republic. It also played an important role supporting other independence movements in Latin America, including Simon Bolivar’s independence crusades, and becoming a breeding ground for the activation of enlightenment ideals generally attributed to continental Europe. Would many Latin American countries have had their 19th century independence without Haiti? This is a question that we cannot answer, but the fact that it is a reasonable question to ask says a lot of the crucial role this country has played in our common history. Now, why is it important to start this discussion with this historical reflection, seemingly unrelated to today’s migration events? Because, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us in his beautiful book Silencing the Past, this is a story that tends to be erased from history. It is also a story that tends to be silenced by the ideology of crisis which obviates that Haiti could have told us a very different story about its future.

A second problem with the ideology of crisis is that it depicts Haiti as a country in isolation. However, to understand migration from Haiti we need to move beyond local to international politics and learn how it has affected Haitian nationals’ sustainability within Haiti. Among the different examples provided by our speakers three surprised me the most.  First, the imposition of a new constitution on Haiti by the US in 1917, giving American businessmen the capacity to own land in Haiti, and exposing many rural families to future dispossessions and deleterious working conditions. Second, the negative impact of free trade policies that destroyed the rice and pork industries, among others, and turned Haiti into a country that imports more than half of its food and is now vulnerable to the spikes in food prices—especially those related to global climate change. As evidence of this problem, in 2010 former President Bill Clinton acknowledged mea culpa for the impact his free trade policies had on Haiti. At a Senate hearing he said: “I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did.” Third, our speakers also mentioned the increasing control that foreign investors exercise over politics and economics in Haiti, maintaining underpaid and harsh labor conditions within the country. With this, our speakers did not intend to say that there are no internal causes that are forcing people to migrate. But the evidence shows that the crisis-based ideology depicting Haiti in isolation from the rest of the world will not drive us near to understanding Haitian migration. Migration, and to be more specific forced migration, is a matter of more than one national party.

There is another mechanism by which Haitian migration is not just a matter of Haiti. We can identify this mechanism as the demand for cheap labor. According to our speakers, Haitian nationals have come to represent one of the main sources of cheap labor in the agricultural and construction industries, not only in the US but also in other countries of Latin America. In particular, businesses in the Dominican Republic and Brazil have sought Haitian labor for the construction of hotels and vacation resorts, the building of World Cup and Olympics infrastructure—for the case of Brazil—or cultivation in different agricultural plantations. The seasonality of these different kinds of jobs and the substandard labor conditions have forced these workers into pathways of perpetual migration. Interestingly, one of these pathways led to the vast presence of Haitian migrants that we see today at the US-Mexico border. If we are to identify a starting point for this particular pathway, we should locate it at both the 2010 earthquake which forced many Haitians to take refuge in Brazil and the subsequent work that these refugees found in construction for World Cup and Olympics’ infrastructure encouraging many of them to stay in Brazil. With the end of these jobs and the stagnation of the Brazilian economy in 2016, many Haitians migrated to Chile to take new jobs in the service industry and the informal labor market. However, the Covid-19 pandemic combined with increasing anti-Black and anti-immigrant discrimination pushed many to migrate again, this time taking a longer and more strenuous route from Chile, through the Darien Gap at the border between Colombia and Venezuela, and up to the US-Mexico border—most of this 5,000-mile journey has been done on foot. With these examples, the migration crisis that is being portrayed by the media cannot be solely understood as a Haitian crisis. It is primarily an international crisis where many countries have failed to guarantee the basic means of sustenance to those who reside and work in these national territories.

These pathways that I have just described are the reality behind what Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called the “irregular migration path.” Many of these pathways have ended in deportation back to Haiti, perhaps awaiting another migration journey back to Chile, Brazil, the US, Colombia, Peru, Argentina…

These pathways reveal that Haiti is not an island isolated in the Caribbean Ocean. It is a moving territory connecting national, political, economic, and social histories, with individual migration journeys, and transnational relations that bring Haiti to the US, the Darien Gap, Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Park, or Chile, among other geographical locations and polities. Hence, if we insist on calling this a crisis, I propose a bold and more honest description and call it a crisis of the Americas.