United States law presumes and requires a differentiation between economic immigrants and political refugees, although such a distinction is often impossible. From an objective perspective, Haitians were fleeing both political persecution and economic despair. The nation had a history of "kleptocracies" - government by thieves in a predatory state in which those in power lived in luxury off the backs of the desperately poor people whom they ruled. From its auspicious beginnings in 1804 as the world's first free black republic, the second free nation in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti found itself isolated politically and economically by the slave economies in the rest of the Americas.
The nation's government was never truly democratic and Haiti was never developed in ways that would benefit the majority of its citizens. Rather, a small elite lived off the production of the peasantry and the spoils of government corruption. The Duvalier regimes added another element: vicious repression that secured spoils for their collaborators, versus poverty and suffering for the rest of the people, who had no opportunity for economic advancement.
The INS, citing Haiti's abysmal poverty, maintained that its citizens were not fleeing persecution; they came because they wanted jobs. Haitian advocates, pointing to the ubiquitous and brutal repression of the Duvalier regimes and most of its successors, asserted that Haitians were true refugees. In a fundamental sense, both sides were right. Immigration and refugee laws, however, presume that individual migrant motivations can be separated.
Historically immigrants came - or were recruited - to take jobs that Americans either did not want or could not fill. Recruitment is no longer necessary, but the majority of immigrants to this country have been most directly motivated by economics. Many others came primarily because relatives had migrated earlier and they wanted to reunite with their families. Family reunification drives American immigration policy; once an immigrant flow begins, the momentum of reunification usually keeps it going. The last major category of immigrants is political refugees.
Haitians combine all of these motivations. Many of those who first fled François Duvalier's regime were escaping persecution. They initiated a Haitian diaspora that spread to Africa, France, Canada, the Bahamas, other parts of the Caribbean, and the United States. Many also had politically influenced economic reasons, as Papa Doc's policies affected everyone's economic security.
But the ultimate causes of the migration mattered little to American policy makers determined to deter Haitians from coming to South Florida, the focal point of Caribbean immigration since the Cuban Revolution. By 1990 the region had the largest foreign-born population of any major metropolitan area in the United States, and the largest concentration of Cubans outside of Havana.
Nearly 60 percent or more of Miami's population is Hispanic: more than 600,000 Cubans, but also more than 100,000 Nicaraguans. Given the recent dramatic transformation immigration has brought to South Florida, it is not surprising that many natives resisted the inflow of Haitians. Nevertheless, the nature and intensity of their resistance reveals a racism not seen in other places where Haitians have settled, nor experienced by other immigrants who have come to Miami.
South Floridians assumed that the "boat people" were uneducated, unskilled peasants who were likely to be disease-ridden. Although these stereotypes were eventually disproved, they still persisted and moved South Florida leaders to pressure the INS into a consistent, resolute policy against Haitian refugees.