As crisis consumes Haiti, migrants face economic difficulties in America
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Haiti is facing a number of crises that are worsening the country’s already-fragile economic situation. Gang violence, sky-high inflation and an ongoing political crisis are paralyzing the country and forcing some to seek economic opportunities elsewhere.
However, migrants who make the journey to the United States — often crossing the southern border illegally and under harsh conditions — may find limited economic options once they arrive in America.
Kensey Pierre, a Haitian migrant who recently arrived in New Jersey from Chile, hasn’t been able to find steady work in the eight months since he arrived in the United States. His name has been changed to protect his identity.
“In Chile, no matter how bad it was, we still had something coming in,” he said through an interpreter. “We used to do any kind of work. We’ve been here for a while and nothing has come through yet.”
Kensey came to the U.S. illegally with his family about 8 months ago and is awaiting a decision from the government on his asylum claim. He originally left Haiti in 2018 because it was hard to find work to support his family. Now, the 30-year-old lives with his wife and two children in a room given to them by a church pastor.
“My economic situation is not good,” he said. “We have very little income except for public assistance we just started getting. A pastor gave us a room — however, the house has lead and we can’t stay there with the kids. We have to move by the end of the month.”
For Haitians who haven’t fled abroad, the deteriorating domestic situation is stretching the country’s battered economy to the breaking point. Inflation is near 30%, and GDP is projected to contract for a fourth consecutive year in a country where people live on an average of less than $5 a day.
“The main point of entry of goods, materials, food, etc., is kind of locked out from the rest of the country,” said Laurent Msellati, the World Bank’s country manager for Haiti. “So gangs controlling access to the port and letting trucks go out of the ports in very limited numbers affects all parts of the economic activity.”
The instability has led to a growing number of Haitians fleeing for America. Over 150,000 are already in the U.S. legally and have what is called Temporary Protected Status. In December, the Biden Administration extended eligibility to people like Kensey who entered the country before Nov. 6, 2022. Some in the Haitian-American diaspora say the recent influx is stretching their capacity to provide assistance to migrants.
“The overwhelming majority of Haitians sort of depend on us … on other Haitians in the community, family members,” said Vanessa Jean-Louis, a second-generation Haitian-American and Founder of the non-profit Children of Haitian Immigrants. Community activists like her say cases like Kensey’s are becoming increasingly common in the United States.
“They’re technically not legally here, they don’t have established credit, so they have to work oftentimes under the table or someone has to rent an apartment for them,” Jean-Louis said. “The need is so great, and oftentimes we’re coming out of our own pockets to provide assistance to families.”
While migrants can receive some benefits like SNAP — also known as food stamps — and other limited welfare, some advocates say it’s not enough. Jean Maurice, a pastor at the predominantly-Haitian Brick Church in East Orange, New Jersey, says that the growing number of migrants aren’t being served well enough by existing government aid programs.
“I would really like to see the policy change vis-a-vis immigration,” he said. “I think the U.S. needs to revisit this to offer more opportunities for migrants who are searching for a better life economically.”
While he awaits a decision on his application for asylum, Kensey is staying in America.
“Once things are stable at home, I can return … But for now, I don’t see it,” he said.
He hopes, like many migrants who work abroad, to eventually send money back to his relatives who are still in Haiti.
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