U.S. tightens immigration policy on undocumented Haitians

Attorney Steve Forester, with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, second from right, speaks about a ruling by the Obama administration that routine removals of undocumented Haitian immigrants will resume, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016, during a news conference at the Haitian Women of Miami (FANM) center in Miami. (Credit: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

In an attempt to stem a recent surge in Haitian refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Obama administration has announced a change in immigration policy to allow border officials to turn away Haitians without visas.

Before the new policy, Haitians had been entering the United States under a humanitarian parole provision – as a result of the devastating 2010 earthquake – that allowed Haitians to stay in the U.S. for up to three years. In 2011, officials tightened this policy to focus on Haitian criminals or those posing a threat to national security.

Now, the U.S. government considers the situation in Haiti to have improved sufficiently enough “to remove Haitian nationals on a more regular basis, consistent with the practice for nationals from other nations,” according to a statement released Thursday by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. The policy change is effective immediately.

The news has prompted concerns from refugee advocates over where Haitians will be able to find refuge. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldana testified in Congress that 40,000 Haitians are in transit. So far, nearly 5,000 have made it to the U.S. border, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials.

Haitians join a growing numbers of migrants and refugees from across the Americas, Africa and Asia who have embarked on the perilous journey through Latin America to reach the U.S. in recent years.

For Haitians, the journey starts like that of many other migrants and refugees – in Brazil, which opened its doors to Haitians after the 2010 earthquake. At the time, Brazil had a surplus of low-wage jobs and welcomed Haitians with humanitarian visas. Brazil has since fallen into political and economic free fall, which has forced struggling Haitians to leave Brazil as its unemployment rate soared.

With little choice, Haitians have been leaving Brazil to attempt a 7,000-mile journey across 11 countries in South and Central America, often paying thousands of dollars to coyotes – people smugglers – along the way.

Despite the grueling and deadly nature of the journey, more Haitians are attempting the route for some of the same reasons shared by Cubans and other migrants: They have no opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty in their home countries.

Haiti’s economy has been in a sharp decline since 2014, and the World Bank predicts only marginal economic growth this year due to political instability, lower investments and a struggling agriculture sector after a severe drought. Foreign aid has also plummeted, the Miami Herald reported, from more than $2 billion in 2011 to barely $250 million this year.

Considering that Haiti is still struggling to rebuild its economy and public health systems, refugee advocates are questioning the decision to send Haitians back to their country of birth and fear what impact the U.S. policy change may have on Haitians who make the treacherous journey from Brazil only to be turned away.

Meanwhile, Haiti’s upcoming first-round presidential elections on Oct. 9 has renewed hope that the country’s changing political environment will welcome more international support for the Caribbean nation. In this election, Haiti may also elect its first ever female president, who would face pressure to lead the country in reducing poverty and encouraging desperately needed development.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com