Haiti: A Muddled Policy, A Heavy Price

By George B. High on June 1, 1994

Immigration Review no. 18, 1994

Since taking office, the Clinton Administration has faced conflicting priorities and concerns regarding Haiti: (a) an ousted President from Haiti who was his country's first democratically-elected leader ever, but who, like his countrymen, had no experience in democracy and who personally had no experience in government; (b) an economy driven to ever-greater depths of despair by an embargo supported by President-in-exile Aristide; (c) a military responsible for egregious human rights violations and which has faced down U.S. efforts to replace its leadership and de facto government; and (d) many thousands of persons who would like to flee to a better life in the United States.

U.S. policy has been to join with the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and especially the other three "Friends of Haiti" (Canada, France and Venezuela), to oust the military, return Aristide to power, and assist in an effort to reconstruct Haiti's government, economy and society. On the one hand, the United States wants to return Aristide to power (after all, U.S. pressure helped to bring about the democratic elections that Aristide won, bolstered the transition period in which Duvalier recalcitrants tried to prevent his inauguration, and, with a particularly supportive American Ambassador, even helped to save Aristide's life when the military overthrew him). On the other, it fears that massive flight of Haitians seeking better conditions in the United States would be very disruptive economically and socially to our own country.

United States policy continues to be buffeted by those contradictory forces and interests. Some deny that we have important interests in Haiti and question a deeper involvement. But we do have important interests in Haiti: assuring a friendly and hopefully more democratic and progressive government there that will avoid the excesses and periodic destabilization that has characterized the history of that neighboring state; avoiding large scale migration from persons fleeing conflict and economic misery there; and acknowledging the tie African American leaders feel with the country.

There are those, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who maintain that the widescale repression and violence in Haiti creates a genuine refugee situation, and because of this, persons who want to leave Haiti should be given safehaven, at least temporarily. This ignores the fact that many Haitians have been trying to emigrate to the United States for decades, and that in our experience "temporary safehaven" generally becomes permanent. They point to the U.S. practice, embedded in the Cuban Adjustment Act, that allows Cuban boat people virtual automatic residence in the United States, and claim that America's exclusion of the Haitians is racist.

In contrast, others recognize that the special treatment accorded Cubans is the result of unique domestic political considerations. These persons argue that it is time to withdraw that special treatment, because most of those who leave Cuba are fleeing economic and not political conditions. Evaluate Cubans, they say, by the same standards applied to Haitians and countless other asylum claimants from other lands. That is, countless others except for certain Southeast Asians and Christians and Jews coming from the former Soviet Union — who also receive special consideration for unique political reasons. Persons with this view assert that Cuban and Haitian claimants should be evaluated on the same standards we generally apply worldwide. They conclude that most Haitians are leaving their country to escape difficult economic conditions and uncertainties and not because they fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion (the UN and the United States standard), the same conclusion reached in most Immigration Service interviews of the Haitian claimants.

The Clinton Administration's latest policy turn, in its uneven approach to Haiti, has been to strengthen the economic embargo — thereby assuring that even larger numbers of Haitians will want to leave the island — and to offer off-shore hearings of their asylum claims — which will also stimulate a massive movement of people and likely involve endless wrangling over the hearing process and holding conditions.

The number of Haitian boat people being interdicted began to rise early in 1994, as some made it through the naval blockade and others left the Bahamas and were allowed to remain in the United States. From January to mid-June 1994, the number of persons interdicted was approaching 3,300. In May alone, 1,448 Haitians were apprehended and another 518 were stopped in the first two weeks of June. This is not at the level of interdiction of over 5,000 persons per month reached during the seven months in 1991-92 when boat people were taken to Guantanamo for processing, but the increase should serve as a warning to policymakers of the pressures in Haiti.

While some important activists who generally support the Administration initially applauded the new policy of hearing claims on-board ships or, more hopefully, on land somewhere in the Caribbean, they are already criticizing the U.S. government for the likely inadequacy of those facilities and expedited hearing procedures. What many of them really want and have proposed in Congress is at least temporary refuge in the U.S. for all Haitians fleeing their country and for much more generous grants of asylum than the Immigration Service offered either at Guantanamo or during in-country processing of claimants. The Administration's acquiescence to those policy pressures is inviting massive migration from Haiti — just the mass exodus it has feared.

As the crisis in Haiti festers, we are muddling our way into a corner that offers only stark alternatives — accommodating in the United States countless Haitians, most of whom are economic migrants; military intervention followed by an extensive and expensive state-building effort with very uncertain results; or disengaging and leaving it to the Haitians to work out an ugly, strong-arm solution. None is attractive, each entails a heavy cost.