In this handout image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, approximately 100 Haitians await rescue on the hull of a 40-foot sail freighter after it grounded and capsized, Nov. 26, 2013, in the Caribbean Sea.
U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images

On Nov. 18, in the nearly 500-mile stretch of the Caribbean that sits between Haiti and the United States mainland, boaters commanding small vessels awoke to a dire marine forecast that predicted “hazardous seas,” “dangerous rip currents” and winds capable of producing 12-foot waves. Small vessels, it said, should not leave harbor.

But for the more than 130 Haitians clustered aboard a 40-foot sailboat that left L’ile de la Tortue earlier in the day, it was already too late.

There was little food, water and no room at all to sit. But most of the people aboard the cramped sailboat had already paid anywhere from $147 to more than $400 and put their faith in a smuggler’s promise. The boat would sail north, away from Haiti toward a different and better life. In the end, at least 30 passengers drowned, starved or somehow died after the ship ran aground in the Bahamas.

The doomed voyage was actually just one of many this year. U.S. Coast Guard officials and their counterparts in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos (click here to see a map of the region) say the number of Haitians attempting to escape their homeland by sea is increasing and costing a growing number of them their lives. The Coast Guard estimates about 4,000 Haitians have fled the island this year, with about half taking new, shorter and often perilous routes to U.S. territory marketed by mercenary and increasingly ruthless human smugglers. More than 400 have been picked up by the Coast Guard attempting to enter the U.S. in the last three months alone. And, in that same period, at least 37 have died.

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With a surge in the numbers of Haitians attempting this often deadly trip, the question is, why now?

The answer, according to government officials, community organizers working with refugees and those who follow developments in the island nation may be as far-ranging as the island nation’s troubles are deep. But among those who watch the world’s first black republic closely, some are also pointing a finger directly at the U.S., its first black president and its still-unreformed immigration policy.

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"Of course, it's poverty. Of course, it's the after-effects of a devastating earthquake," said Steve Forester, the U.S.-based immigration policy coordinator at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. "Conditions are what they are in Haiti. But without question, the Obama administration has failed to provide one measure of relief, to release some of the pressure on that island that at this point could save lives."

Haiti’s Struggles Continue

In January 2010, Haiti was already struggling from just over two centuries of alternating world neglect and interference, unmanageable levels of international debt, domestic corruption and environmental decay. Then, a magnitude-seven earthquake shook the island, maiming and killing at least 600,000. Some of the country’s most important buildings, including at least 50 health care facilities, collapsed.

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About 1.3 million people were also left homeless (pdf). And within months, United Nations peacekeepers sent to Haiti introduced a cholera epidemic that killed an estimated 8,000 Haitians and infected nearly 650,000.

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.  

This year, though, smugglers have begun taking Haitians overland into the Dominican Republic, to that country’s Eastern coast and into a waterway known as the Mona Passage. The Mona Passage divides the Dominican Republic and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. It involves a 40- to 60-mile trip that’s short but more perilous.

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“What they will do is stop along a rocky outcrop 30 to 40 feet out and order everyone off,” Fedor said. “If you are not a strong swimmer, at that point, you are in real danger.”

In November alone, three Haitians went missing in the Mona Passage.

Others say a series of promises made and broken by the Obama administration have contributed to the increasingly desperate efforts some Haitians are making to get off the island. During the 2012 campaign, the president promised Haitian-American voters in Florida that his administration would implement an immigration-parole policy for Haitians, said Forester with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

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Immigration parole would allow an estimated 106,000 Haitians, who have already cleared the background checks and other hurdles necessary to obtain immigration visas and green cards, to live and work legally inside the U.S. Cubans, including those who migrate illegally but make it to U.S. shores, already benefit from a similar policy.

Right now, Haitians must wait anywhere from two to 13 years in their own country before a visa and green card are granted.

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“Would immigration parole improve conditions in Haiti? No, that’s quite unlikely,” said Forester. “But it would open a valve, alleviate one source of pressure and allow people who may quite literally die while waiting in Haiti a chance at a different life.”  

The Obama administration has declined to comment on specific campaign promises related to Haitians and immigration. However, Peter Boogaard, a spokesman with the Department of Homeland Security (the federal agency that oversees immigration), did describe the administration’s efforts to address Haitian immigration interests.

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“Since January 2010, this administration has taken a number of humanitarian steps for Haiti, including a designation of temporary protective status in 2011, which has been extended through 2014,” Boogaard wrote.

Temporary protective status allowed Haitians living in the U.S. the day of the January 2010 earthquake and those who arrived with even a short-term visa up to one year later to remain in the U.S. legally.

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“The administration continues to review humanitarian options and remains in contact with Haitian officials,” Boogaard wrote.

Immigration parole is one of the few immigration policy ideas that enjoys broad, even bipartisan, support, Forester explained.

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“Given that reality, I think it’s high time for this administration to do what it can,” he said. 

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.