Rebuilding Haiti Without Borders: Remittances and Migration

By Michelle Chen Jan 30, 2010

Activists have tried to keep the immigration issue on the national agenda by highlighting the potential economic benefits of immigration reform. The massive humanitarian crisis right next door may present an opportunity to recast immigration in the context of addressing global poverty.

This week, officials from various countries gathered in Canada to discuss how to lift Haiti out of both the disaster’s aftermath and its entrenched economic misery. There was talk of the international community’s role in reshaping the country (supposedly with the current Haitian government at the helm, supported by very wealthy backseat drivers).

Some officials proposed reversing the country’s previous demographic and economic shift toward the dense urban center of Port-au-Prince and revitalizing agricultural regions. Disregarding the role of international financial institutions in promoting the destruction of Haiti’s farming sector through neoliberal policies, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped the "multilateral efforts" could help "decentralize economic opportunity and work with the Haitian government and people to support resettlement" back to the countryside.

But Clinton didn’t mention another critical population shift: international migration. Tens of thousands of Haitians have fanned out across the globe to pursue economic opportunity. The Obama administration has moved to ease some immigration restrictions for refugees, but the immigration system that could be the linchpin of Haiti’s recovery is still based on criminalizing natural human mobility and degrading migrant labor.

At Foreign Policy, Georgetown University Professor Michael Clemens describes how the organic movement of labor into the United States could do far more to lift up Haitians on the island than any free-trade pact, or aid convoy ever will:

The vast majority of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so by leaving the country. Pick any reasonable poverty line for Haiti; the vast majority of Haitians above it no longer live there….. A typical low-skill male Haitian in the United States earns at least six times what he could earn in Haiti. And all of this just accounts for Haitians in the United States. Include the roughly 100,000 more who are in Canada and Western Europe, almost all of whom live on over $10 per day, and it’s even starker: The vast majority of Haitians who escaped poverty did so by leaving Haiti, not as a result of anything that happened in the country. What about Haitians who did not emigrate? A limited number of these have emerged from poverty, but many were lifted out of poverty by remittances from abroad. They, too, should be included in any accounting of the effect of migration on poverty. Dilip Ratha, a top expert on remittances, estimates that a full accounting would show that Haitians abroad send home $1.5 billion  to 1.8 billion per year or higher. That is much more than all the foreign aid that Haiti receives. The middle of Ratha’s range suggests that remittances account for more than one quarter of Haiti’s GDP. This is conservatively low because remittances have a multiplier effect on local GDP. 

Clemens sees immigration policy as a vehicle for capitalizing on the diaspora’s labor network:

I propose a new kind of U.S. visa for Haitians and poor people around the world, a Golden Door Visa. This would formally recognize that one of the unwritten goals of immigration policy is global poverty reduction. The Golden Door Visa would not necessarily mean more immigrants. Instead, the United States could reallocate visas within the current levels to include people from the world’s poorest countries who are most in need of opportunities. This small adjustment to U.S. immigration policy would have a big impact by improving the lives of poor immigrants and those who remain in their home countries through remittances.

Could an anti-poverty, pro-global-development visa work? Remittance-based economies obviously carry their own perils. The proposed initiative may smack of an antiseptic Beltway think-tank paper, or worse, a glorified guestworker program, which would, if past is prologue, place profits over human rights and create a two-tier workforce. Still, ARC’s Debayani Kar (also an activist with the Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action) points out that building on the power of existing remittance infrastructures is arguably a more grassroots method of promoting grassroots development in Haiti, rather than funneling aid or nefarious loans through murky bureaucracies.

The ethics of such a program might hinge on who is empowered to run the system. Would communities, labor groups and rights advocates have a say in how visas are allotted, and who would have priority among the legions of Haitians affected by the quake? Would they be allowed to stay and move toward citizenship, or be uprooted again once their economic utility is tapped?

The prospect of an exodus from Haiti to the U.S. faces other political hurdles, namely the backlash of anti-immigrant forces who fear a new flood of cheap labor. And without concrete human rights safeguards, more border crossings could unleash more exploitation and discrimination in the low-wage workforce. But if the international community’s objective is to actually empower Haitians to help rebuild their country from the ground up, then they ought to look to the Haitian migrants already on the ground, putting down roots far outside their homeland.

Image: Nijla via flickr