Haitian boat people

The Event: Attempts by Haitian asylum seekers to reach the United States on small boats

Date: Late 1970’s to early twenty-first century

Location: Waters off the coast of South Florida

Significance: Defining the Haitian boat people as economic rather than political refugees allowed the United States to refuse asylum to thousands of Haitians and raised serious questions about human rights standards and treatment of refugees in the United States.

Large-scale Haitian immigration to the United States began during the 1970’s when Haitians, attempting to escape Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship, sailed for the United States. Before 1977, about 7,000 boat people had arrived in the United States; by 1979, 8,300 more had arrived. U.S. policy decided that Haitians were not political refugees but economic immigrants, seeking jobs and better living conditions, making them ineligible for asylum. Thus, no Haitians were given refugee status, and every Haitian landing in the United States was subject to immediate deportation. The 1980 Mariel boatlift, in which 125,000 Cubans and 40,000 to 80,000 Haitians tried to immigrate to the United States, caused President Jimmy Carter to reevaluate U.S.- Haitian policies. He created a class of immigrant, the “Cuban/Haitian entrant (status pending),” allowing Haitians who had entered up to October 10, 1980, to apply for asylum. Any Haitian entering after that date was faced with incarceration and deportation.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan reinforced the policy and began interdiction of Haitian boats. For the next ten years, U.S. Coast Guard ships returned any seized boat carrying Haitian refugees to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Interviews were supposed to be conducted on board, and anyone with a legitimate request was to be granted asylum. However, during that period, only twenty-eight applications for asylum were granted out of approximately twenty-five thousand. Many reported never having actually been interviewed at all.

In 1991, the numbers of asylum seekers dropped when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, took office. However, within months a violent military coup ousted Aristide, leading to the murders of fifteen hundred Aristide supporters and precipitating a new immigration crisis. By 1992, tens of thousands of Haitians attempted to sail to the United States for political asylum. However, President George H.W. Bush claimed that because there were no human rights violations going on in Haiti, the United States could not recognize Haitian refugees as political asylum seekers. In 1992, thirty-seven thousand Haitians were repatriated or incarcerated in holding facilities such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Haitian sailboat loaded with 155 people awaiting a U.S. Coast Guard
Haitian sailboat loaded with 155 people awaiting a U.S. Coast Guard cutter to pick them up off the coast of Miami, Florida, in June, 1994. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Human rights groups condemned the American refusal to accept Haitian refugees even after the fall of Aristide. Citing numerous murders of repatriated Haitians, violations of Haitians’ civil rights, and imprisonment and harassment upon repatriation, these groups tried to change the status of the Haitian boat people to political refugees. Human rights groups asserted that the United States was in violation of the 1951 Convention and subsequent 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and President Bush was found to be in violation of the Refugee Act of 1980. However, by defining Haitians as economic relief seekers and not refugees, the United States was allowed to maintain its repatriation policy.

Taking office in 1993, President Bill Clinton had opposed Bush’s repatriation/interdiction policy and promised that he would be generous toward Haitian refugees. Coast Guard personnel remarked that seven hundred new boats were built by Haitians awaiting Clinton’s presidency. However, in a reversal of opinion, Clinton reinstated Bush’s policy.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that only those refugees who actually make it to U.S. soil on their own could be considered for refugee status and that anyone interdicted would be repatriated. This controversial policy, along with continued interdiction at sea, remains in effect in the early twenty-first century.

Leslie Neilan

Further Reading

  • Gaines, Jena, and Stuart Anderson, eds. Haitian Immigration. Broomal, Pa.: Mason Crest, 2003. 
  • Garrison, Lynn. Voodoo Politics: The Clinton/Gore Destruction of Haiti. Los Angeles: Leprechaun Press, 2000. 
  • Haines, David W., ed. Refugees in America in the 1990’s: A Reference Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. 

See also: Bureau of Immigration, U.S.; Coast Guard, U.S.; Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S.; Cuban immigrants; Dominican immigrants; Florida; Haitian immigrants; Infectious diseases; Mariel boatlift; Refugees; Transportation of immigrants.

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