Haitian Immigration


Since the establishment of the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, Haitians have been victims of negative stereotyping; no contemporary immigrant group has encountered more prejudice and discrimination. The story of Haitians in the United States is not one of unrelenting sadness, however. Many, if not most, struggle against prejudice and prevail. They have a strong sense of self-esteem and are proud of their heritage, as is evident in the innumerable community organizations that promote Haitian theater, music, stories, art, religion, cuisine, and the Creole language. Thus for many Haitian immigrants, life in the United States is a conflict between pride in their roots and prejudice against blacks in general and Haitians in particular.

The Trends of Haitian Migration

Haitians have a long history of migration and temporary sojourns in other countries. More than one million are estimated to live in the Dominican Republic, where many serve as contract laborers harvesting sugarcane.

The children of Haiti's small middle and upper classes have traditionally attended schools in France; and political opponents have tended to leave the country after power changes hands. But for a long time, few Haitians came to the United States. In spite of the popular image that all immigrants want to come to America, the reality is that immigrant flows are directed toward the countries with which they have the closest cultural, political, and economic ties.

Haiti's links and largest immigration flows have traditionally been to France, along with French-speaking African countries (more than 1,500 had settled there by 1963) and Canada.

Until the late 1950s, only about five hundred Haitians permanently immigrated to the U.S. each year, while another 3,000 came temporarily as tourists, students, or businesspeople.

The origin of the Haitian immigration to the United States can be traced to the assumption of absolute power by President François "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1957. The United States became more involved in Haitian affairs, and the candidates for emigration began to focus on the U.S. With the 1965 Immigration Act that permitted family members to bring close relatives, more people entered the country. Nearly 7,000 Haitians became permanent immigrants every year, and another 20,000 came with temporary visas. But it was during the late 1970s and early 1980s that Haitian immigration entered the American public consciousness as boatloads of people washed onto South Florida's shores.

From Haiti to the United States

President John F. Kennedy thoroughly deplored Duvalier's infamous corruption, brutal human rights violations (carried out by the infamous Tontons Macoutes), and tyrannical oppression of his political enemies, an all-inclusive group that ranged from trade unions and churches to the Boy Scouts. The CIA and the State Department's Special Operations Branch armed and supported several unsuccessful exile invasions aimed at overthrowing the dictator.

At the same time, the U.S. actively encouraged Haitians to immigrate. The first to leave were members of the upper class who directly threatened the Duvalier regime. U.S. consular officials readily approved nonimmigrant visas and - in contrast to later years - virtually all émigrés arrived legally via airplane. Though many would subsequently overstay their visas, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) did not pursue their cases, and most eventually became permanent U.S. residents.

Following President Kennedy's assassination, policy changed. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was more concerned with combating communism than with human rights violations in right-wing dictatorships. In addition, Duvalier stood by the United States against Fidel Castro's Cuba; the U.S., in turn, ignored his tyranny and stopped encouraging Haitians to immigrate here. Nevertheless, around 1964, the middle class began to leave the island. The 1965 Immigration Act permitted legal residents to bring close relatives, and the northward stream broadened.

In September 1963, the first boatload of Haitian refugees landed in South Florida. They asked for political asylum, but the INS summarily rejected the request and the boat was sent back to Haiti. The incident was a preview of the epic to come.

By the late 1970s, crude sailboats, often nearly overflowing with refugees, began to arrive regularly. Though there were tales of boats that never made it, enough arrived to cause concern among South Florida officials. The desperate plight facing many Haitians began to make media headlines. Haitian advocates argued that they were fleeing legitimate political persecution and at least deserved a chance to make their case. Repeatedly, the INS used its resources to turn them back.

François Duvalier's death in 1971 brought no appreciable change in Haiti's despotic political conditions. His nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude (nicknamed "Baby Doc"), succeeded him as president-for-life. With the murderous assistance of the Tontons Macoutes, he perpetuated the reign of terror. In February 1986, anti-government demonstrations finally toppled his regime, and Baby Doc fled to France with an estimated $120 million.

With Duvalier out, the Haitian masses rejoiced in the belief that democracy would finally come. The flow of refugees into South Florida noticeably declined, although the United States continued to interdict boats and detain their passengers in the ongoing effort to deter Haitians from coming to this country.

Even with a new regime, the economic and political conditions did not improve in Haiti. Repression and corruption continued under what Haitians refer to as "Duvalierism without Duvalier." From Jean-Claude Duvalier's fall until December 1990, the country experienced four military coups and a fraudulent election. Human rights violations, desperate poverty, and government corruption remained an integral part of everyday life. As a result, the number of Haitians seeking refuge in the United States climbed.

Haitians' hopes rose again with the election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in December 1990. The activist Catholic priest's victory caused a substantial drop in the exodus of refugees. But the return of democracy and the associated decline in Haitian "boat people" proved all too brief. On September 30, 1991, after just eight months in office, Aristide was overthrown in a military coup.

In the aftermath, soldiers beat, tortured, or murdered the ousted president's supporters, who had been arrested and imprisoned without warrants. Haitians again began to leave for the United States: 38,000 in the first eight months following the coup. Between October 29, 1991, and February 12, 1992, according to Haiti Insight, the United States Coast Guard spent an average of $45,000 per day intercepting, housing, and returning most Haitians to their homeland.

A Particular Prejudice

The treatment of Haitians represents a continuing bias in U.S. policy toward refugees, especially in contrast to the way their Cubans counterparts are handled. The Coast Guard has attempted to intercept boats before they left Haitian waters; a disproportionate number of undocumented Haitians who made it to U.S. shores were incarcerated; and requests for political asylum have been met with the highest rejection rate of any national group.

Repeatedly, local South Florida and national officials have identified Haitians as a health threat: in the 1970s, tuberculosis was allegedly endemic among them. In the early 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control identified Haitians as one of the primary groups at risk for AIDS. In spite of their removal from that list, the Food and Drug Administration in the late 1980s refused to accept the donation of blood from individuals of Haitian origin.

When Congress passed an immigration law that permitted many Central Americans to obtain legal immigration status, Haitians were left out. Later, when a law was passed specifically for Haitians, the INS delayed issuing regulations on who could qualify.

When Haitians began landing in South Florida with stories of political repression and were then denied refugee status, their plight became a public issue, especially when contrasted to the very favorable treatment of the Cubans. Although some Cubans espoused the Haitians' cause, most remained silent. African Americans were, and remain, the only ethnic group to consistently support the rights of Haitians coming to Miami.

Haitian advocates did, however, gain some short-term benefits for limited numbers of people. In 1980, Haitians who arrived before October 10 of that year were granted the same terms as Cubans who had come to the United States before that date. After that, newly arrived Cubans retained their privileges, while Haitians faced renewed discrimination.

In 1982 a U.S. federal court ordered the release of a group of Haitian refugees who had been detained by the INS. Later arrivals, however, were detained and not released. In 1994 Haitians were detained in Guantanamo Naval Base and seldom turned over to relatives in the U.S., while Cuban detainees were almost always released. In 2002 Haitian refugees who had a credible fear of persecution if returned to their homeland were not released on parole, although this was standard practice for other nationalities.

Politics or Economics?

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.

A Profile of the Haitian Immigrants

The 2000 U.S. Census found approximately 750,000 Haitians residing in this country. This figure, however, reflects an undercount of as much as 50 percent in some neighborhoods. Florida, with 268,000 Haitians, has more than one-third of the nation's total.

The second largest concentration, 180,000, is found in New York. Massachusetts, primarily Boston, has a significant community of some 50,000 Haitians. The remaining population is spread thinly throughout many states.

Although Miami is the closest city to Haiti and its climate more similar, the legacy of segregation still prevailed, and most Haitians who arrived in the 1960s settled in the northeastern United States and French Canada, where racism was less severe. A large Haitian community began to emerge in New York, along with others in Chicago, Boston, and Montreal.

The immigrants encountered the problems and difficulties common to many new arrivals, compounded by the fact that the Haitians were "triple minorities": they were foreigners, spoke a language (Haitian Creole) that no one else did, and they were black.

Many of those who came temporarily subsequently overstayed their visas, thus becoming undocumented immigrants. Nevertheless, immigration authorities seldom pursued illegal Haitians in the Northeast or Midwest, and their presence in those regions did not attract much public attention until 1997, when Abner Louima was attacked and sexually assaulted in a New York City police precinct.

As the government and Haitian advocates fought during the 1980s over the rights of the newcomers to remain in this country, a South Florida Haitian community was emerging. Its focal point, known as Little Haiti, lies just north of downtown Miami and has become the center of Haitian life in the United States.

The Haitian population in South Florida is overwhelmingly composed of recent arrivals - nearly two-thirds of the foreign-born Haitians in Miami came in the 1980s, with 40 percent arriving between 1980 and 1984. Only 7 percent of Miami's Haitians reported in 1990 that they had arrived prior to 1970.

It is a youthful population: nearly 42 percent were between thirty and forty-four years old, while close to 20 percent were fourteen years old or younger. However, the number of Haitian births in Miami held steady at 2,000 per year in the 1980s and early 1990s, a rate comparable to the broader population growth. Thus, the Haitian population is growing more from immigration than from new births in this country.

Refugees in South Florida found that anti-Haitian prejudice and discrimination created barriers to finding employment. In the 1970s, rumors that tuberculosis was endemic among Haitians swept through the state just as the early arrivals began to find work in the restaurant industry. The rumors were proven to be false, but the publicity created a strong stigma that affected many individuals. Restaurant owners, of course, did not want tuberculosis-infected workers. A number of Haitians were fired and many more did not get hired. Just a few years after the tuberculosis scare, when AIDS was first identified as a deadly disease, Haitians were again targeted.

Except for low-wage, dead-end jobs, there were few opportunities for the refugees. A 1983 survey showed that more than one-third had never worked since coming to this country. Nearly 30 percent of the males and more than 70 percent of the females were unemployed. But the situation improved and, by the 1990s, Haitians unemployment rates, though still high, had begun to approximate those of African Americans. Businesses realized that Haitians would work cheaply and without complaint.

Beginning in the 1980s many of the first wave of immigrants who had settled in the Northeast and Canada moved to Florida; they diversified the economic mix by adding a component of entrepreneurs, professionals, and other middle-class Haitians.

The Haitian Soul: Religion and Culture

To cope with their constant confrontation with prejudice and discrimination, most Haitians turn to the internal strengths of their culture. They recall Haiti's extraordinary revolutionary history. They turn their gaze toward heaven and attend church more frequently and in greater numbers than any other contemporary immigrant group. They extol their world-famous art and music, as well as their African- and French-influenced cuisine.

Haitians are devout Christians. Surveys have shown that nearly 75 percent of recent immigrants to South Florida attend church at least once a week. In a striking departure from the denominational makeup of Haiti, where some 80 to 85 percent of the residents are Catholic, nearly 40 percent of Haitian Americans are Protestant. Storefront churches abound in Little Haiti and a few Protestant congregations have had explosive growth. One Baptist church has converted a huge, former textile plant in Little Haiti into an impressive house of worship.

Religious communities provide a social support system for fellow immigrants. In rural Haiti, Vodou ceremonies draw families - immediate and extended - together. They help individuals cope with growing up, becoming ill, getting cured, and eventually dying. The religion provides avenues for prestige, an informal criminal justice system - through its rituals those who behave improperly can be chastised and disciplined without recourse to police and courts - and the opportunity to participate in a multitude of ceremonies involving music, dance, skits, and crafts. It has been said that the Vodou temple in Haiti is "sanctuary, clubhouse, dance hall, hospital, theater, chemist's shop, music hall, court and council chamber in one."

In the United States, Christian congregations fill many of those roles and more. When an immigrant is sick or in dire straits, fellow parishioners may gather at the person's house to pray together and/or informally contribute money to help. Churches formally aid with charity and other services. Pastors and priests command great respect. It is not accidental that the first democratically elected president of Haiti was a former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Many Haitian paintings are rooted in Vodou, and numerous celebrated artists began as Vodou priests. Vodou ceremonies frequently have veves, emblematic signs drawn on the ground with ashes, flour, coffee grinds, brick dust, and other powders: Haitian artists simply transformed these paintings from the earth to canvas. Even Christian paintings done by Haitian artists often have Vodou connotations. Catholic saints have Vodou counterparts, and Christian religious scenes may be suffused with Vodou imagery.

"Two things have kept the Haitian people going up to now. There is religion - belief in God, in Vodou - and there is music," explains one Haitian exile musician. Haitian music has become part of the American pop culture scene. By far the most popular Haitian musician in this country is Wyclef Jean, the Grammy-winning singer, composer, and arranger who has been referred to as the "hip-hop Amadeus." His former multiplatinum band, the Fugees, chose their name as an abbreviation for "those from refugee camps." Jean has also been honored for his continuing efforts in support of musical education and expanded opportunities for underprivileged children.

Haitian visual artists are now firmly established in major collections in the United States, and their works are bringing high prices at the leading auction houses. One of the most celebrated is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Born in Brooklyn, Basquiat moved from graffiti art to the avant-garde scene in New York during the 1980s. His meteoric rise to fame in the international art scene was cut short by an early death.

Writer Edwige Danticat, who was born in Haiti and immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve, is an acclaimed, award-winning young author whose books retrace the Haitian experience.

Family Life and the Second Generation

The family is the primary foundation for Haitian life in the United States. In fact, families sponsor and organize the migration. Once here, émigrés are expected to maintain and reinforce kinship ties back home. Actually, the refugees' financial support for family in Haiti may well contribute to their poverty in this country. Shirking these obligations shames both the immigrants and their relatives in the homeland.

Nuclear families often expand to include more distant relatives and even former spouses. Children may often live with those relatives or with others not related by blood but still regarded as kinfolk. Children are at the core of Haitian life, greatly appreciated and linking families and households.

Although most Haitians arrive in the United States with little money, nearly all have "social capital," networks that can provide resources - housing, employment, and knowledge of the local rules of survival.

A new group is emerging in the Haitian-American community: the second generation. They are a diverse group, with different stories, strategies, and identities. Sadly, some have internalized the stereotypes that cling to their community.

Phede arrived in Miami when he was twelve years old and quickly assimilated. He became a "cover-up," hiding his Haitian identity by Americanizing his name to Fred, speaking English without an accent and never speaking Creole, not even at home. He had a job at McDonald's, sang in the church choir, became an honor student in high school, and hoped to become a lawyer.

One day, Fred's girlfriend, an African American, came to visit during his break at the restaurant. While they were talking, Fred's sister arrived and spoke to him in Creole. She blew his cover and he blew his cool. Fred screamed at her to never, ever speak Creole to him again. He did not want to be known as a Haitian. Four days later, the young man bought a .22 caliber revolver for fifty dollars. He drove to an empty lot near his home and killed himself with a bullet to his chest.

By becoming Fred, Phede aimed to gain acceptance by his peers in the predominantly African-American neighborhood where he lived and attended school. He tragically believed that covering up his national heritage was his only possible path to success. Phede's suicide made clear the pain and shame that constantly assail second-generation South Florida Haitian youth. Like him, many children and adolescents commit a form of cultural suicide by hiding their Haitian roots, claiming they do not know their native language.

They are likely to have conflicts with their parents over their efforts to Americanize and, like American youngsters, they struggle for independence. For adolescent females, these battles can be particularly difficult. In traditional Haitian families, parents exercise nearly absolute control over their daughters, especially concerning expressions of sexuality.

Haitian parents, like other immigrants, view education as a path for their children to improve their lives. Many Haitian children do indeed excel. Second- and first-generation Haitian immigrant youth have flourished at the nation's elite universities. Language and cultural differences, however, often deter parents from directly participating in school activities. They frequently lack enough English to help with homework; groups like Parent Teacher Associations are unknown back home.

Nevertheless, parents constantly tell their children that they expect them to succeed academically. As fifteen-year-old Aristide Maillol explains, "We are immigrants and immigrants must work hard to overcome hardship....[If] you study...[and] do what your mother, what your father, tell you, things will get better."

For middle-class students, the rewards of schooling are self-evident. For those from a poor or working-class neighborhood, however, it frequently appears that white Americans will get all the good jobs, that blacks and Latinos do not have the same opportunities. Believing that school is not worth the effort, an unfortunately large number of minority youths adopt an adversarial stance toward education. While many Latinos and African Americans do extremely well in school, others have given up hope.

Haitian youths in inner cities are often caught in this cultural vise. Their parents insist that they excel in school and maintain their Haitian heritage. At the same time, many of their African-American peers demean Haitian culture and maintain that racism blocks success for all blacks, regardless of academic achievement. Haitian youths must try to balance the expectations of their parents with the harsh realities of prejudice and discrimination that they confront. Some commit cultural suicide, but many more adopt dual identities, being American among peers and Haitian among family.

Six years after Phede's suicide, Herve stood before his classmates at the same high school Phede had attended. Herve, or Herb as he has begun to call himself, tapped out a beat with his fists, shuffled a few dance steps, and began to rap:

My name is Herb and I'm not poor
I'm the Herbie that you're lookin' for
Like Pepsi,
A new generation
Of Haitian education and determination
I'm the Herb that you're lookin' for

Herb resolved the tension over his identity in a much healthier manner than Phede. He adopted an African-American style, Rap, but he flavored it with a distinctive immigrant ethic of hard work and success. He celebrated rather than concealed his Haitian culture.

As Haitians pass through adolescence they become both more American and more Haitian. They dress in American styles, eat American food, and speak English. At the same time, as they mature, they often prefer to identify not as American or even African American, but as Haitian American or even simply as Haitian. They overcome the shame that led Phede to kill himself and so many others to commit cultural suicide. They rediscover a pride in their Haitian roots.


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Web Links

Haitian Times

Online version of a newspaper covering the Haitian community in the United States


Haitians In America

A site created by the Trinity College Haiti Program providing information and analysis on Haitian political, economic and social issues, especially those affecting Haitian-Americans.


Voices of New York Series - Haiti

In the Fall of 2001, the New York University Morse Academic Plan (MAP) course, The Language of America's Ethnic Minorities, undertook a project to hear the voices of real and imagined immigrant communities, and learn about the people behind them.


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From Haiti's roots of revolution to its contemporary struggle, this news feature includes articles, timelines, a photo gallery and profiles on a Canadian Broadcasting website.


Haitian-Americans for Human Rights

Press releases and links to others about the rights and protests of Haitian-Americans. This page focuses on a campaign to stop the production of a video game that includes violent slurs against Haitians.


Heritage Konpa Magazine

Site for Haitian and Haitian-American news, culture, and entertainment.


We Haitians.com

Site devoted to democracy in Haiti with a collection of various newspaper articles, editorials, essays, photos and community resources. Features photos used on the In Motion site of Haitian refugees.


Immigrants and Politics

Florida International University's Immigration and Ethnicity Institute/ Center For Labor Research and Studies conducted this report. Various focus groups were interviewed to identify the factors of the lack of involvement by Haitian Americans in community affairs and political action.


All Haiti

This page is a portal that offers links to an immense varity of sites on politics, economy, music, arts, migration, literature, and many other topics.