Haitians Are Dying at Sea Trying to Reach the US

Many Haitian immigrants take increasing risks in their efforts to find better opportunities in this country.

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Haiti’s trade deficit remains massive, but is shrinking. Consumer prices remain far above what they were before the 2010 earthquake, but they’re falling in a relatively stable way. Interest rates have declined markedly during that same period.

The other good news: The share of Haitians living with HIV/AIDS has declined to 3 percent. And, development deals—criticized by some for offering limited numbers of low-wage jobs—have stoked an increase in private investment. The IMF predicted last year that if Haitian socioeconomic progress continues at this rate, the island will leave the ranks of the world’s poorest nations (pdf) in 25 years.

But 25 years is a long time to wait.

Tension With the Dominican Republic

“Recovery from hurricanes, cholera epidemics and general disorder has been very slow and not credible in the eyes of most of the people,” said David Abraham, a professor of immigration and citizenship law who specializes in Haiti at the University of Miami Law School.

And recent decisions handed down by the high court in the neighboring Dominican Republic this fall—including one that stripped the children of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic of their citizenship—have left many Haitians with the sense that opportunities for economic progress, even health and basic education, can’t be found without a trip across the ocean, said Abraham.

Given those conditions, it’s no wonder that Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, has become the world’s sixth most active outpost at which visas needed to enter the United States are granted, according to the U.S. State Department. But demand for immigration visas far outstrips supply.

“The theory for 30 years has been if we interdict enough of them at sea and detain them under unpleasant conditions and with no chance of bond or temporary parole [for] those who happen to make it through, this will deter others,” said Abraham. “That theory has not worked.”

This year, the Coast Guard has watched the usual holiday-season migration surge from Haiti begin early and grow particularly deadly, due, at least in part, to the enterprising and ever-evolving nature of trafficking.

In previous years, most Haitian migrants took their chances, heading north 500 miles to Florida through a strip of the Caribbean Sea between Haiti and Cuba known as the Windward Passage, explained Capt. Mark Fedor, chief of enforcement in the U.S. Coast guard’s seventh district office, based in Miami.