Two Years after Haiti’s Catastrophe, It’s Time to Complement Aid with the Most Cost-Effective Assistance: Migration

January 09, 2012

Two years ago this Thursday, at least 150,000 people died one evening in Haiti. As a fraction of the national population, the U.S. equivalent would be the instant death of the entire state of South Carolina. Those Haitians died mostly because they lived in a poor country.Forget the comforting notion that an earthquake, pure and simple, killed them. The same ground movement can only cause dozens of deaths in a country with the wealth and institutions to erect proper buildings. One of the principal causes of their deaths was where they were.

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Since then the United States and other donor countries have expressed a desire to help Haitians. Sadly, they have so far neglected the cheapest and most powerful economic tool at their disposal.That tool is international migration. I discussed the economic power of migration for Haitians in a video that I happened to post the day before the earthquake. Because so little poverty reduction has occurred historically in Haiti—where real income per capita fell by half over the 40 years preceding the earthquake—the large majority of Haitians who have ever escaped poverty have done so by leaving Haiti. For those who don’t move, remittances have historically been much larger than foreign aid to Haiti, and today are as large as 30% of GDP.And remittances to Haiti, unlike foreign aid, generally go directly into the pockets of Haitian families. They are spent almost entirely on locally-produced goods and services, which means that they raise the return to investment in local farms and businesses. Contrast that with US post-earthquake relief, of which less than 4% has gone to Haitian businesses, Haitian NGOs, or the Haitian government; most goes to U.S. contractors. Of the $412 million the U.S. government allocated for post-earthquake infrastructure reconstruction in Haiti, over 99% remains unspent. I certainly do not argue that aid efforts are futile. But given that migration has historically been such a key force for Haitian poverty reduction—cheaper and more effective than aid—it is a sad waste to leave migration policy entirely out of the disaster relief effort.Yet the U.S. and other donor countries have no systematic policy to leverage the power of international migration for post-disaster assistance. Since the early 1950s, the U.S. and the world have had a systematic way to handle limited numbers of people crossing international borders due to violent persecution. Today there is no similar mechanism for people fleeing natural disasters. Such people are not, technically, “refugees”. (For 28 years the definition of “refugee” in U.S. law did include those fleeing natural disasters, but in 1980 that was changed.)And while the U.S. has taken notable steps to limit deportations to Haiti after the earthquake, from the beginning this policy was designed to serve the needs of people who arrived before the earthquake. Subsequent tweaks have not changed that much in practice. The bottom line is that no clear policy channel exists by which even a handful of Haitians can leave Haiti for the U.S., even temporarily, because of the earthquake. The inexpensive power of migration lies untapped.This could easily change. I asked humanitarian relief expert Sarah Williamson and immigration lawyer Royce Murray to dig out all of the ways that small and cost-effective changes in U.S. migration policy could assist Haiti. They found numerous potential changes, detailed here, with highlights here.Two of those potential changes are particularly easy. The U.S. administration could make them immediately, under current law:
  • Low-skill work visas. First, the administration could reverse the current ban on Haitian participation in the U.S.’s largest employment-based visa program, the H-2 temporary low-skill work visa. All Haitians are currently ineligible to receive these visas. If even a few thousand Haitians at a time participated in that program over the next decade, it would generate more money for Haitian families than the entire U.S. infrastructure reconstruction allocation for Haiti. Fiscal cost: zero. It would even generate net positive U.S. tax revenue. Effect on Americans’ jobs: none. Removing the ban on Haiti would simply allow employers already seeking laborers to draw from Haiti instead of being limited to the 53 currently-eligible countries like Guatemala and Mexico.
  • Family reunification parole. Second, the administration could admit (via “humanitarian parole”) some portion of the Haitians pre-approved for a U.S. permanent-resident “green card” who are being forced to wait in Haiti, separated from their families, for green card processing. This list includes many thousands who are close family members of established U.S. permanent residents and U.S. citizens. These include the husbands, wives, or young children of established U.S. permanent residents. An analogous program already exists for Cuban family reunification.
Note that neither of these measures would increase immigration to the United States, not by a single person. The H-2 visa is a temporary nonimmigrant work permit; it is not an immigrant visa. And any parolees on the green card waiting list are already approved to be U.S. immigrants. Everyone on the list is coming anyway, it’s just a question of when.Political pressure is now surging for both of these sensible measures, including a stack of letters representing constituencies all over the country. A bi-partisan group of eight U.S. senators and representatives from Florida, as well as a large coalition of civil society organizations working on behalf of Haiti, have asked the administration to reverse the ban on H-2 work visas for Haitians. And the group asking the administration for humanitarian parole to reunited Haitian families now includes over 95 members of Congress, the governor of Massachusetts, the city of Philadelphia, the city of North Miami, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network.This week brings the second anniversary of Haiti’s tragedy. The best way for the U.S. to mark that anniversary is to take the cheapest and most effective steps at its disposal to offer economic opportunity to more Haitians. The simple steps above amount to a common-sense normalization of the rules we apply to Haitians, placing them on equal footing with those of other nationalities. This is the least we can do.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.