Spreading the Inevitable Flood of Haitian Refugees Around the Region

By David North on January 18, 2010

It is highly likely that there will be a flood of Haitian refugees in the next few months, no matter how heroic the Administration‘s efforts are to meet the short- and long-term needs of the people in Haiti.

It is time to make some hard-nosed suggestions about the distribution of those refugees.

I heard on the news last night a reporter say that Haiti is "on America's doorstep." Compared to Afghanistan, well, yes, but a look at the map would be helpful.

Haiti, at best, is at the outer fringe of mainland America's front lawn. The places where the doorstep image fits are: Dominican Republic (on the other side of the island), Cuba, and the Bahamas; also nearby are two American territories that, to be blunt about it, have never lifted a finger to help America to resettle refugees, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Then there are the British, the ex-British, the Dutch, and particularly the French islands in the Caribbean, most much closer to Haiti than Florida.

None of these places are as rich as the U.S. or Western Europe, but all are far more prosperous than Haiti, and all should pitch in and help with the probable flow of refugees. The individuals will find a better life in those places than in the other likely locations – the slums of Brooklyn and Miami.

If they wind up in the French islands of Guadeloupe or Martinique they will even have experience with the local language. (Many Haitians speak French, most speak a French-based creole.)

One of the characteristics of the U.S. refugee program is that there is no central control of where, within the U.S., the refugees settle. The initial distribution is in the hands of junior officers of the private resettlement agencies who meet weekly in New York City; after that a refugee, though initially settled in South Dakota, say, may move to California – it is rarely the other way around.

What results is called in the trade "secondary migration" as refugees – pretty rootless after their initial arrival – move around the nation to find relatives, or in by-gone days, more friendly welfare systems.

The result is that huge number of refugees live in ethnic clusters – think of the Vietnamese in Orange County, Calif., or the Hmong in Minnesota's Twin Cities – which is comfortable for them in the short term, but slows their long-term adjustment to life in America.

My suggestion is that the U.S. prevail upon jurisdictions in Haiti's neighborhood to accept a finite number of refugees – a small fraction, in each case, of what the U.S. will accept. This will not be easy. Islanders can be just as biased as Mainlanders, if not more so. That most of the island governments are run by blacks is not necessarily helpful vis-a-vis the resettlement of black refugees.

But the U.S. can use diplomatic leverage on the Dominicans, the British, the French, the Dutch, and the ex-British colonies to help some of the Haitians. How Cuba will react will be interesting.

The U.S. would extend its current per capita refugee Resettlement and Placement (R&P) grant of $900 each, now used only on the Mainland of the U.S., to all cooperating island governments. The refugees would be given travel documents that allowed them legally to enter only the place of resettlement or Haiti. Refugee resettlement organizations will object to both provisions, of course; they will want to keep R&P grants within the States, and will object to the limited mobility of the new refugees.

Would-be refugees would be offered a choice; either you and your family go to, Jamaica, say, or you can stay in Haiti. Few would chose the latter. Others would be given the choice between one of the U.S. islands or Haiti.

As to the cooperation of the governments in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the levers are easily pushed and pulled. Both island jurisdictions are heavily dependent on flows of funds from Washington, most of which are not automatic, and can be sped or delayed by agency action. (The Departments of Agriculture, Education and Transportation provide moneys, as does the Federal Communications Commission, among others.) The governors could be told, quietly, that all of these flows will be stalled until the islands work out their refugee resettlement programs.

Whereas the U.S. cannot block a refugee in South Dakota from moving to California, regulating air traffic out of Puerto Rico, and particularly the Virgin Islands, is much more manageable. Besides, there is – elsewhere – the precedent of issuing Guam-only visas to potential tourists to that island. (Part of this plan would involve issuing VI- or PR-only visas to Haitians resettled in those locations.)

In addition the U.S. would see to it that some small classes of refugees – such as those picked up seeking illegal entrance to the U.S. – would be sent to Guantanamo. The Navy base there also could use its hospital to treat some of those injured in the earthquake. Not all of Gitmo is a prison, and its extensive grounds have been used to house Haitian refugees in the past. An article in the New York Times on January 17 touched on such a use of Gitmo.

Gitmo may be a grim place, but nothing is as grim as Haiti itself. I know, I once spent a year in Port-au-Prince, or so it seemed in those four days; I am sure that, even without an earthquake, it is the most depressing place on earth.

Editor's Note: If you enjoyed this blog, please visit our Haitian Immigration overview page.