267. Telegram From the Embassy in Haiti to the Department of State1

5237. Subject: Illegal Migrants—Consultations. Ref: State 278113.2

1. C—Entire text.

2. Illegal Haitian immigration to the United States will continue as a major irritant in our bilateral relations as long as the Haitians believe that regardless of their legal status, they are better off outside Haiti than they are in Haiti. Given the very poor economic conditions in Haiti, there is little incentive to remain in the country for those Haitians with the money to buy a passage out on “refugee boats”, or with the qualifications for an immigrant visa to the United States. Outside the principal cities, Haitians have limited access to education, to health facilities or improved job opportunities. The Haitian is aware, however, that these desires may be satisfied by his emigration abroad, and given the close proximity to the United States, many choose to make the voyage to Florida.

3. Haitians desiring to leave face little in the way of official obstacles. Those who are able to purchase forged documents for visas to the United States do so knowing that GOH authorities will make only limited and sporadic attempts to apprehend them, while those who seek passage on refugee boats are able to do so in the knowledge that local officials will, in most cases, choose to ignore their impending departure. Haitian “boat people” have had first hand experience that those seized on illegally departing vessels are neither fined nor imprisoned on their return to Haiti. At the most, boat captains are minimally fined and spend a couple of days in prison.

4. Those Haitians who successfully make the trip to the United States feel confident that they will not be sent back to Haiti from the U.S. for illegal entry or attempted illegal entry. This brings us to what seems from Port au Prince a fundamental and indisputable factor: that as long as our policy on Haitians illegally resident in the United States remains unclear, the average Haitian surmises that once in the United [Page 634] States, he will not be turned away.3 We estimated some months ago, as a surmise, that a million Haitians would leave for the United States if they could. There have been no developments warranting lowering that estimate.

5. Any serious effort to thwart the continued outflow of Haitian migrants requires a substantial investment in the improvement of the country’s economic infrastructure. This includes a firm commitment from the government to this development. This commitment requires also the development of jobs, particularly in the rural areas, which offer future opportunities for individual economic improvement. Infusion of massive bilateral and international funds must be closely coordinated, for in the very short term, the putting of more money into the hands of poor hard-working Haitians is likely to spur the construction of more boats and the exodus of more people. However, programs which have sufficient long term focus, should serve to stem the initial negative consequences, and ultimately develop an environment in which the rewards of remaining in Haiti will compete with the imagined rewards of migrating. Economic assistance alone will not provide a quick fix for Haiti’s woes. More importantly, our efforts along these lines must be tempered by reality. We should also be alert to certainty that GOH will maneuver for increased bilateral assistance, without having any concrete plans in mind for economic development projects. Consequently, we should consider outlining specific projects, under controls agreed upon between the two countries for any new economic assistance endeavor.

6. To complement the effects of a long term economic strategy for Haitian development, closer cooperation between the United States Government and the GOH on the treatment of illegal migrants should be established. We need to recognize that Haitian authorities are sensitive to international charges of human rights abuse and must be encouraged to step up their efforts to interdict the refugee outflux. Conceivably the linking of substantial financial investment in the country with observable improved efforts to stop the boats would have a beneficial effect in spurring the GOH into action. Yet, for this effort to have meaning, USG actions must convey to the GOH and the Haitian people that continued illegal migration will not be tolerated. Along these lines, the U.S. Coast Guard might serve such a function by providing humanitarian assistance to refugee vessels it locates, and then towing them back into Haitian waters. We are all agreed that loss of life should [Page 635] be avoided; however, stern USG action to turn the ships away would have dramatic effect on the streets of Port au Prince and throughout Haiti.

7. We are also obligated to seek the legal clarification of those Haitians now in the United States, and under Judge King’s injunction, the issue must be raised, once again, whether these Haitians are entitled to asylum in the United States.4 If the judgement is that they are so entitled, then we are legally obligated to provide sufficient refugee numbers for Haitians. If Haitians are not accorded special refugee status, then we are forced to raise the issue of repatriation. Regardless of the decision taken, we are worse off without a decision, for we encourage the aspirations of those in Haiti who see, as of now, no real hope for immediate improvements here.

8. Useful talks, we believe, must contain a mixture of these elements, and must direct their focus to what we are in a position to do to make for immediate and long term alleviation of the Haitian illegal migrant problem. We also believe that it would be useful for the delegation to come with statistics of the number of Haitians now in the United States, the number of boats, passengers, and frequency of arrival for the past year. (FYI. Embassy would appreciate receiving these figures ASAP in our preparation for these talks.) Delegation may also wish to bring updated reports on the status of Haitian illegal migrants.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800503–0354. Confidential; Immediate.
  2. In telegram 278113 to Nassau and Port au Prince, October 18, the Department transmitted plans for negotiations with Bahamian and Haitian officials regarding illegal immigration. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800498–0298)
  3. In telegram 265544 to Nassau and Port au Prince, October 4, the Department reported that “the USG would like to explore the possibility of a cooperative arrangement to intercept boats carrying undocumented Haitians and to return them to Haiti.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800474–1035)
  4. In July 1979, U.S. Federal District Judge James King issued a temporary injuction against the INS to suspend deportation of the Haitian refugees, and in July 1980 ordered INS officials to formulate a plan to begin processing Haitian’s asylum claims.