Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Sad Haitian Tragedy Calls For U.S. Immigration Fix

Joe Cardona, The Miami Herald
June 15, 2012

This past week, another sad and all-too-common tragedy occurred off the coast of the Bahamas as an overcrowded boat carrying 28 Haitians on route to Florida capsized resulting in 11 dead — including at least four children. This recent calamity is yet another lamentable example of why the Obama administration needs to cease idle, campaign chatter about immigration and expedite Haitian family reunifications.

After the catastrophic earthquake that decimated Haiti two years ago, President Obama responded quickly and effectively, millions of dollars in U.S. aid and soldiers to help the Haitian people dig out from under the rubble.

Eventually, Temporary Protected Status was rightly granted to Haitians who were here at the time of the quake, as well as relatives who joined family in the states shortly after the natural disaster destroyed their lives. This measure was appropriate given the devastation left behind by the earthquake. It was a good first step in what should have been a more permanent, structured, and legal process by which Haitians should be allowed entry into this country.

In South Florida, immigration policy goes beyond political rhetoric — many Miamians are immigrants or the children of immigrants or certainly know someone who was not born in the United States. Yet for the over four decades that I’ve lived in Miami, immigration law has never been just or equitable.

This is rich in irony as Cuba and Haiti share a history spanning two centuries of having the United States meddle in both countries’ development and internal politics. Both Cuba and Haiti have been victims of tyrannical dictatorships that systematically violated — and in Cuba’s case, continue to violate — human rights. Despite the glaring similarities between these two groups, there has been great disparity in how the United States treats them under immigration law.

The reasons for the preferential treatment afforded Cubans and not Haitians (and other ethnic groups such as Nicaraguans, Mexicans or Hondurans) include inconsistent American foreign policy, the economic prosperity and subsequent political clout gained by the Cuban community and the ever present and little spoken or written about racism that Haitians (and other groups) continue to be victimized by — lighter-skinned immigrants have historically been slightly more palatable to the U.S. electorate.

Despite the $11 billion of aid pledged and the seeming willingness of the international community to help rebuild Haiti after the earthquake, the process has been slow and disappointing. Part of the problem is that the world identified this as a “rebuilding” project. The truth is, Haiti needed building and edifying long before the catastrophe.

There is enough blame to go around for the economic and political failures in Haiti. The bulk of the responsibility undoubtedly falls on the Haitian people. The country has a flawed political culture that serves as a corroding factor in almost every facet of the country’s infrastructure. Few Haitian government institutions are exempt from the adverse effects of corruption.

The lack of functioning government services and political transparency in Haiti bring on the economic stagnation that fuels desperation and propels its citizens to leave the island by any means and at any costs.

The Haitian polemic is complex and unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. The United States’ approach should be two pronged. We should continue helping Haitians (in Haiti) develop reliable, effective public institutions and in essence apply the old adage of helping them to fish rather than to supply the fish. At the same time, Haitians should be afforded more legal options to enter the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security has already approved 112,000 Haitians, which include 15,000 underage children and spouses of permanent Haitian residents, for entry. The wait for people on this list ranges from three to 11 years. An orderly and prompt migration process, like the one established for Cubans, is a sensible and humane option for Haitians — hopefully signaling the end to the all-too-familiar tragedies at sea.

Joe Cardona, an independent filmmaker, directed Emmy-winner Nou Bouke (We’re Tired), a documentary produced by The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald about Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. To see the video, go to

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