What is an American?
“An independent person, who has freedoms, who can follow their dreams, who can live freely without fears of social unrest…I do feel that I am an American.”
-Jean Michelle Mitch
Jean Michelle Mitch is a twenty-year-old student at St.John’s University in Queens. In 2003, when he was 10 years old, his family immigrated from Haiti to the United States after life-threatening situations were encountered: “My mother… she encountered threatening situations a few times; she got held at gunpoint by somebody.” Mitch and his family were fortunate to obtain a lawyer in America, and they are currently obtain asylum status while waiting for citizenship…other Haitian immigrants are not as lucky.
Haitians in New York
- Almost 25% of the population living in Rockland County’s Spring Valley Villages (in NY) is Haitian–that’s the third highest in any town in the U.S., just behind North Miami, Florida.
- The official documented Haitian population is 200,000; including undocumented population is Haitian population is estimated closer to 400,000.
- Earlier Haitian migrants, 1950 and 1972, were more educated than the later “boat people” phenomenon experienced in the 1980’s and into today; this is a direct relationship to the country’s political unrest during the later time period.
- Although the Haitian population of Rockland County is considered to be living at or below the federal poverty line, there is a thriving class of professionals.
Political and Economic Factors Surrounding Haitian Immigration to America
- Haiti’s unstable government caused riffs with in the parliament and the people of Haiti.
- Haiti went from dictatorship control to a democratic government.
- Aristide and Bill Clinton’s relationship was very rocky which led to Aristide’s forced resignation from office three times.
- Foreign aid was either embezzled within the parliament or was suspended, resulting in the people not receiving any help from either situation.
- Riots and violent protests were occurring that were threatening and fearing most Haitian citizens, forcing most to find an escape route out of Haiti.
Haitian Refugees in America: The Fight For Citizenship
- The first detected Haitian boat with refugees arrived in 1963.Their request for asylum was denied, and they were deported” (Charles, 202). Ten years later, 65 Haitian refugees claimed refugee status and were denied, between 1971 and 1977, 35,000 arrived, 1977 and 1981, 50,000 to 70,000 arrived and after the coup of Aristide in 1991, 34,000 made the journey and were intercepted at sea (Charles, 203). In 2001, the issue of Haitian refugees became a national event when a boatload of 187 Haitian refugees reached the Florida shores.
- During the Cold War “opportunities and special provisions were created for refugees fleeing “communist”, countries as in the cases of Eastern Europeans and Cuban refugees.” (Charles, 199)
- The Refugee Act of 1980 was passed shortly after this, along with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Immigration Act of 1990. President Carter also responded to the immigration issue by establishing a new category defined as “Cuban-Haitian entrants” (Charles, 196). This new policy included Haitians by default, extended a welcome to those who had arrived with the Cubans and made the matter of asylum a matter of right rather than based on discretion and claim. Although the act removed all references to communism to the definition of refugee, the government under the Reagan administration continued to give most of the admission slots to those fleeing communist countries.
- “Since the 1960s’, U.S. policies toward Haitian refugees and asylum seekers can be described as simply as a denial of due process, mistreatment, deportation and racial exclusion.” (Charles, 195).
- The National Council of churches established the Haitian Refugee Center in 1972, which forced the release of Haitian prisoners without bond.The National Coalition for Haitian Refugees was established in 1982, which was the product of forty two American and Haitian religious, labor and human rights organizations whose sole purpose was to help the community bring protests to a political level. (Charles, 191-2).
The Struggle Continues…Racial Discrimination in America
- Haitians in American can be perceived as Haitian-Americans, or Caribbean-Americans, as well as African-Americans because of their skin color, giving their identity a multidimensional aspect, since they can be defined as a triple minority
- Haitian hometown associations have become very important to Haitian immigrants in the United States, because they seek to “position themselves as a distinct ethnic group” separate from African-Americans, “to support the democratization process in Haiti, and to address the humanitarian crises there.” (François,19)
- In Haitian society social class is more culturally important than racial category; American society provides these Haitian refugees with a great disadvantage when they automatically find themselves “regulated to the bottom of the social ladder as black immigrants in the United States.” (François, 21)
- The black/white dichotomy in America creates problematic self-identification crises for Haitian immigrants who want to consider themselves as a separate ethnic group. Haitians speak their own unique language of Creole and some practice Vodou, a distinctive religion, making the Haitians ethnically diverse from African-Americans.
- Class action suit Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti, testimony “showed how Haitian national asylum seekers were discriminated against when compared to other groups of refugees and asylum seekers.” (Charles, 203)
Jean Michelle’s story brings awareness to the struggle many Haitian-Americans face upon arriving to America, and even before. These topics are not as openly discussed as they should be; as students in New York City, we feel that current immigration problems should be studied more in depth in order to draw comparisons between the first great waves of immigration, and the continual immigration seen today. The United States is an immigrant nation, and all ethnic groups should have fair representation. Our discussion on the push/pull factors of Haitian immigration, discriminatory citizenship issues, and the cultural issue surrounding ethnic identification outlines some of the most important factors contributing to ALL immigration groups today.
By: Juliana Todeschi, James Molloy, and Regina Ippolito–Wagner College class of 2014.
- Buss, Terry F. & Gardner, Adam. Haiti in the Balance: Why Foreign Aid Has Failed and What We Can Do About It. Brookings Institution Press: Washington, D.C., 2008.
- Charles, Carolle. “Political Refugees or Economic Immigrants?.” Journal of American Ethnic History. no. 2/3 (2006): 190-208. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27501695 (accessed April 13, 2013).
- Dash, Michael J. Culture & Customs of Haiti. Greenwood Press: Westport, CT, 2000.
- François, Pierre-Louis. Haitians in New York City: Transnationalism and Hometown Associations. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2006, chap. 1 & 6.
- Pezzullo, Ralph. Plunging into Haiti: Clinton, Aristide, and the Defeat of Diplomacy. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, MS, 2006.