The outpouring of pledges to “rebuild” Haiti has spurred debate about how much aid will be needed, for how long and who could administer such a large program efficiently. In 2008, the last year for which statistics are available, Haiti received more than $900 million in all forms of aid, and many analysts suggest that total must be doubled if “recovery” is to happen. But it is doubtful whether such additional commitments will be made — and kept — as Haiti moves off the front pages.
“Rebuilding” and “recovery” would merely take Haiti, this hemisphere’s poorest country, back to where it stood before the Jan. 12 earthquake. Surely, our goal is to do better. We must increase aid but also allow Haitians to help themselves, and there is no way they can do that sitting in a devastated nation. A substantial number of Haitians must be allowed to move to richer countries — including ours.
Haiti has approximately 9 million citizens, and 1 million to 2 million Haitians live outside their country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, half a million people born in Haiti live in the United States, and estimates put several hundred thousand in Canada and as many as 100,000 in France. Those migrants send home $1.9 billion in remittances — double the official aid flows and equal to 30 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product.
These sums are greatly exceeded by some of Haiti’s neighbors. The 1.3 million Dominicans living in the United States send home $3 billion in remittances, an amount 20 times as much as official aid flows. A million Hondurans living abroad send home $2.7 billion, providing eight times the global foreign aid Honduras receives. The 1.5 million Salvadorans living here send home $3.8 billion, 15 times official aid flows.
A larger Haitian diaspora would be a far better base for the country’s economic future than aid pledges that may or may not be met. If several hundred thousand more Haitians were able to migrate, those Dominican, Honduran or Salvadoran numbers suggest that remittances to Haiti would give its economy a huge and continuing jolt.
This would require Canada, France and the United States — the First World countries with the largest Haitian diaspora communities — to adopt a different and more liberal immigration policy toward Haiti. Canada has already stepped up, expediting immigration applications from Haitians with family members living there. Canada’s immigration minister noted that “we anticipate there will be a number of new applications, which we will treat on a priority basis.”
But France and the United States have so far agreed only to no longer send Haitians back to Haiti. Washington has granted “temporary protected status,” or TPS, meaning that deportation of Haitians already in the United States is stayed for 18 months. In fact, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has suggested that Haitians must stay where they are despite conditions on the island, saying in a Jan. 15 statement: “At this moment of tragedy in Haiti it is tempting for people suffering in the aftermath of the earthquake to seek refuge elsewhere. But attempting to leave Haiti now will only bring more hardship to the Haitian people and nation.”
The secretary went on: “The Haitians are resilient and determined and their role in addressing this crisis in their homeland will be essential to Haiti’s future. It is important to note that TPS will apply only to those individuals who were in the United States as of January 12, 2010. Those who attempt to travel to the United States after January 12, 2010 will not be eligible for TPS and will be repatriated. The Department of Homeland Security continues to extend sympathy to our Haitian neighbors and support the worldwide relief effort underway in every way we can.”
Well, not every way we can — for one of the best ways to help Haiti is to allow some Haitians to move abroad. It is ridiculous to argue that leaving Haiti in the coming year or two “will only bring more hardship to the Haitian people and nation.” Migration would mean that Haiti needs to provide fewer hospital beds, schools, meals and jobs — and migrants’ remittances will be key to Haiti’s economic recovery for decades to come.
President Obama said that the disaster in Haiti “is one of those moments that calls out for American leadership.” He should be asking Congress not only to provide aid funds but also to allow a significant increase in the number of Haitians legally admitted to the United States — to several times the roughly 25,000 per year in the past decade. Canada and France should do the same. There are no panaceas for Haiti’s recovery, but any sensible approach must include migration from the island. If the United States is committed to giving Haiti hope for the future, enlarging the Haitian diaspora is a surefire way to succeed.
Elliott Abrams. The writer, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs in the Reagan administration and a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush.