WALL STREET JOURNAL
August 2, 1994
ONE ANSWER TO HAITIANS’ CRISIS: LET THEM IN
JOHN J. MILLER
Haitians are America’s most unwanted immigrants. To much of the public, they’re the black boat people, destitute and disease-ridden. A USA Today/CNN poll last year found that 65% of Americans think that Haitians “create problems” for the U.S. — higher than any other immigrant group except Iranians. Only 19% said that they “benefit the country” — lower than every other group, including Iranians.
So desperate are some people to block the flow of Haitians, they are lobbying for a U.S. invasion of Haiti, an option that was sanctioned by the United Nations over the weekend.
But those who support an invasion on those grounds are woefully misguided. The fact is that Haitians make great Americans. They boost our productivity, hold down our cost of living and make us more competitive. They’re clearly doing much better in the U.S. than most people realize, and they’ve gained a reputation for hard work and honesty among the people who know them best. “They’re very responsible. They always come on time and never miss work,” says Michelle Wilson of the Dezerland Surfside Hotel in Miami. Labor force participation among the Haitian-born is very high: 78%, more than 10 points above the native rate.
Haitians began moving to the U.S. in large numbers in 1957. According to the 1990 Census, nearly 290,000 Haitians reside here, although the actual number is almost certainly higher. The vast majority live on the Atlantic Coast, with the heaviest concentrations in New York and southern Florida. The first wave settled mainly in New York, but the expatriate population’s capital has since moved south from Brooklyn to Miami’s Little Haiti district.
Like most immigrants, Haitians place an enormous value on education. Among the Haitian-born population in the U.S., two in five have received some college education and only one in 10 has less than eight grades of schooling, according to census data. The “just-comes,” as recent arrivals are called, don’t look as good on paper, but nonetheless seem determined to improve their lot. One recent study by Alejandro Portes, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, found that Haitian students in Miami do more homework and have a slightly higher grade-point average than natives. Nobody keeps figures on Haitian drop-out rates (they are lumped together with native-born blacks), but by all accounts their rates are lower than those of other groups. The adults share this commitment to education. “Our classes are always full, day and night,” said Roger Biamby, director of the Haitian Catholic Center in Miami.
What’s more, Haitian welfare use is roughly the same rate as natives’: About 5.7% of Haitian households receive welfare, compared with 5.2% of all households, according to a census analysis by sociologist Andrew Beveridge of Queens College. In southern Florida, the rates are 3.9% and 4.3%, respectively. Many Haitians who qualify for benefits refuse them, either because they don’t trust the government or reject the stigma.
Strong family bonds have a lot to do with this. So does religion. “Except for Hasidic Jews, Haitians are the most religious ethnic group in the country,” says Alex Stepick, director of the Immigration and Ethnicity Institute at Florida International University in Miami. About 80% of them attend church at least once a week.
Miami’s Little Haiti is a thriving community, and a hub for Haitian immigrants around the U.S. “It’s the key to everything,” said Fedy Vieux-Brierre, who runs a Miami city office there. North of downtown and east of Interstate 95, the long and narrow district comprises about 120 city blocks of brightly colored houses and busy storefronts. People constantly stroll outside the shops while jitney buses and ice-cream trucks duel each other on the streets.
The area has long maintained a reputation for busy commerce and safe streets, but some of that has started to change. The trade embargo against Haiti took effect in 1991. Instead of deposing the junta, it has left many mom-and-pop shops in Little Haiti reeling. Haitian entrepreneurs currently cannot trade with their homeland, a traditionally important source of jobs and revenue to ethnic enclaves. Unemployment is rising and crime has started to become a problem, even though Haitians themselves remain underrepresented in local prisons. “The embargo is jeopardizing the gains we’ve made over the past 15 years,” says Mr. Vieux-Brierre. Most of Little Haiti adores deposed President Aristide, but support for a U.S. invasion is weak.
There are important questions about the latest crop of Haitian immigrants. Most are single young men who lack the family ties that have helped previous generations. “A lot of them don’t have the same sense of hope and community,” said Tony Catanese, an economist at DePauw University in Indiana. “I’m really concerned about them.” Some fear that the newer arrivals will choose to assimilate into an underclass culture rather than the economic mainstream. “The kids assimilate so quickly these days. Sometimes too quickly,” said Lesly Prudent, principal of Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary School in Little Haiti.
But given the long-standing Haitian-American commitment to self-improvement, it seems as though many of the most recent arrivals stand a good chance of following the typical pattern of immigrant achievement. We ought to disavow the strange fear that allows us to treat Haitians differently from every other kind of refugee. Maybe there are other arguments for and against a U.S. invasion of Haiti, but Haitian immigration to our shores is not a problem. It’s a blessing.
Mr. Miller is associate director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the New American Community in Washington.