haiti, haitian sailboat, haitian migrants
Andrew Uloza/AP
Divers search the area around a boat that came ashore with Haitian migrants in Hallandale
Beach, Fla., in 2007.

Does Shipwreck Illustrate Need for Reform of Haitian Immigration Policy?

July 28, 2009 07:37 PM
by Denis Cummings
Dozens of Haitians are dead or missing following the second wreck of a boat carrying Haitian migrants this year, stirring calls for the U.S. to halt deportation of Haitians.

Haitian Migrants Feared Dead in Shipwreck

A sailboat bound for the United States carrying an estimated 200 Haitian migrants capsized Sunday near the Turks and Caicos Islands. Reuters reported that 120 people have been rescued, but 15 have been found dead and more than 65 are missing.

Many Haitians have tried to escape the poverty and violence of their home country on similar boats, which are often intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and other forces. Several of these overcrowded and poorly built boats have capsized over the past three years, most recently in May.

Haitian migration has increased following deadly hurricanes and tropical storms last year that crippled the country’s economy and infrastructure. The Coast Guard has captured more than 1,500 migrants since October, up 20 percent from last year, The New York Times reports.

The desperate situation in Haiti has stirred calls for the U.S. to temporarily halt deportation of Haitians. Many have been calling for the U.S. to do so since a 2004 coup in Haiti. Last December, following the hurricanes, the Haitian government requested a halt, but the U.S. has yet to grant temporary protected status to Haitians.

Background: Fight for temporary protected status

There are currently more than 32,000 illegal Haitian immigrants in the U.S. who are awaiting deportation. The Haitian government has asked the U.S. to grant the immigrants temporary protected status (TPS), which would allow them to stay and work legally in the U.S. for a fixed period of time.

TPS is granted to immigrants who are “temporarily unable to safely return to their home country because of ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions.” Currently five countries have been designated for TPS: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sudan and Somalia.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the least developed in the Western Hemisphere, according to the U.S. State Department. There has been political unrest for most of the country’s two centuries of independence, most recently sparked by a 2004 coup. The country has a robust drug trade, high crime rates and no “safe areas,” warns the State Department.

If they are sent back, some of them will die,” one illegal Haitian immigrant told The Boston Globe. “When someone goes back and they don't have any family and don't have any money, what are they going to do?”

Haiti was hit by four tropical storms in 2008, which killed hundreds of people, destroyed crops and caused about $1 billion in damage. Supporters of TPS designation argue that the deportation of Haitian immigrants would put a burden on Haiti that it cannot handle and remove one of Haiti’s most reliable sources of income: remittances from the U.S., which total an estimated one-quarter of Haiti's GDP, according to The Washington Post.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Haiti in April and announced that the U.S. was considering changing its policy. However, the Department of Homeland Security has yet to take any action on the matter.

Historical Context: US policy toward Haitian immigrants

The basis of the current U.S. policy toward Haitian immigrants was formed after the arrival of 25,000 Haitians among the 150,000 migrants in the Mariel boatlift of 1980. Although the 125,000 Cuban migrants were accepted into the U.S., the majority of Haitians did not qualify for asylum and were returned.

In 1981, the Reagan administration instituted a policy to interdict Haitian ships and allow only those who face persecution in Haiti to apply for asylum. According to the Congressional Research Service, of the 22,940 Haitians indicted at sea between 1981 and 1990, just 11 were considered for asylum.

In 1998, Congress passed the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, which allowed illegal immigrants who had been in the country since 1995 to remain in the country.

The U.S. places any Haitian who arrives in the U.S. without proper documentation into expedited removal. If an alien expresses fear about persecution back home, the alien is referred to an asylum officer who "determines whether the person has a 'credible fear,'" according to the Congressional Research Service. In 2008, 1,237 applied for asylum and 727 were granted it, the lowest number since 1999.

Advocates for Haitian immigrants argue that Haitians should be subject to the same “wet foot/dry foot” policy for Cuban migrants, who are allowed to remain in the country if they reach the U.S. mainland, the Congressional Research Service reports. Cubans are subject to such preferential treatment because they are considered political refugees, whereas Haitians are considered to be migrating for economic reasons.

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