U.S. Immigration Policy on Haitian Migrants
U.S. Immigration Policy on Haitian Migrants
Ruth Ellen Wasem
Specialist in Immigration Policy
Domestic Social Policy Division
The environmental, social, and political conditions in Haiti have long prompted
congressional interest in U.S. policy on Haitian migrants, particularly those attempting
to reach the United States by boat. While some observers assert that such arrivals by
Haitians are a breach in border security, others maintain that these Haitians are asylum
seekers following a decades old practice of Haitians coming by boat without legal
immigration documents. Migrant interdiction and mandatory detention are key
components of U.S. policy toward Haitian migrants, but human rights advocates express
concern that Haitians are not afforded the same treatment as other asylum seekers.
Relevant legislation includes H.R. 454, H.R. 522, and H.R. 750. This report will be
updated as events warrant.
The phenomenon of Haitians coming to the United States by boat without proper
travel documents dates back at least to the 1970s. An estimated 25,000 Haitians were
among the mass migration of over 150,000 asylum seekers who arrived in South Florida1
in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift. The U.S. Coast Guard, as described below, has been
interdicting vessels carrying Haitians since 1981. Figure 1 presents the U.S. Coast Guard
data on Haitian migrants that the Coast Guard has encountered on boats and rafts in the
years following the Mariel boatlift. Most notably, there was a drop of migrants after the
Haitian elections in 1990 followed by a dramatic upturn after the 1991 coup (discussed
below). As country conditions in Haiti2 and U.S. policy responses to the surges in Haitian
boat people are considered, the spikes and valleys in Figure 1 become more
understandable. Since FY1998, the Coast Guard had interdicted over 1,000 Haitians each
year with 1,198 in FY2006 and 1,610 in FY2007. Haitian interdictions are second only
1 During a seven-month period in 1980, approximately 125,000 Cubans and 25,000 Haitians
arrived by boats to South Florida. This mass migration became known as the Mariel boatlift
because most of the Cubans departed from Mariel Harbor in Cuba.
2 For analysis of conditions in Haiti, see CRS Report RL32294, Haiti: Developments and U.S.
Policy Since 1991 and Current Congressional Concerns, by Maureen Taft-Morales.
to Cuban interdictions (2,868) in FY2007. As of January 31, 2008, the Coast Guard has
interdicted 479 Haitians in FY2008.3
Not all Haitian migrants are interdicted by the Coast Guard, as witnessed in the
widely televised landing of overFigure 1.U.S. Coast Guard Interdiction of
Florida, in October 2002. AnotherHaitians, 1982-2007
noteworthy incident occurred in40Thousands
December 2001 when a boat
bringing 167 Haitians ran aground
in South Florida. In March 2007,30
the U.S. Border Patrol
apprehended 100 Haitians who20
came ashore near Miami. During
deaths at sea when boats with
Haitians capsized or — in one1,610
report — caught fire.4198219841986198819901992199419961998200020022004200602007
Policy EvolutionSource: CRS presentation of U.S. Coast Guard data.
Post-Mariel Policy. The Carter Administration labeled Haitians as well as Cubans
who had come to the United States during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift as “Cuban-Haitian
Entrants” and used the discretionary authority of the Attorney General to admit them. It
appeared that the vast majority of Haitians who arrived in South Florida did not qualify
for asylum according to the newly-enacted individualized definition of persecution in
§207-208 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA, as amended by the Refugee Act5
of 1980). Subsequently, an adjustment of status provision was included in the
Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 that enabled Cuban-Haitian6
Entrants to become legal permanent residents (LPRs).
Interdiction Agreement. In 1981, the Reagan Administration reacted to the mass
migration of asylum seekers who arrived in boats from Haiti by establishing a program
to interdict (i.e., stop and search certain vessels suspected of transporting undocumented
Haitians). This agreement, made with then-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, authorized the
U.S. Coast Guard to board and inspect private Haitian vessels on the high seas and to
interrogate the passengers. At that time, the United States generally viewed Haitian boat
people as economic migrants deserting one of the poorest countries in the world.
3 For interdiction data, see [http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-o/g-opl/AMIO/AMIO.htm].
4 Manuel Roig-Franzia, “20 Haitian Migrants Die at Sea; 58 Missing,” The Washington Post,
May 5, 2007, A12.
5 Aliens must demonstrate a well-founded fear that if returned home, they will be persecuted
based upon one of five characteristics: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular
social group, or political opinion.
6 §202 of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (P.L. 99-603).
Under the original agreement, an inspector from the former Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS) and Coast Guard official, working together, would check the
immigration status of the passengers and return those passengers deemed to be
undocumented Haitians. An alien in question must have volunteered information to the
Coast Guard or INS inspector that she or he would be persecuted if returned to Haiti in
order for the interdicted Haitian to be considered for asylum. Ultimately, INS would
determine the immigration status of the alien in question. From 1981 through 1990,
22,940 Haitians were interdicted at sea. Of this number, INS considered 11 Haitians
qualified to apply for asylum in the United States.
Crisis After the Coup. The 1991 military coup d’etat deposing Haiti’s first
democratically elected President, Jean Bertrand Aristide, however, challenged the
assumption that all Haitian boat people were economic migrants. The State Department
reportedly hesitated on whether the Haitians should be forced to return given the strong
condemnation of the coup by the United States and the Organization of American States.
By November 11, 1991, approximately 450 Haitians were being held on Coast Guard
cutters while the administration of then-President George H. W. Bush considered the
options. The former Bush Administration lobbied for a regional solution to the outflow
of Haitian boat people, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) arranged for several countries in the region — Belize, Honduras, Trinidad and
Tobago, and Venezuela — to temporarily provide a safe haven for Haitians interdicted
by the Coast Guard. Some of the other countries in the region were each willing to
provide safe haven for only several hundred Haitians. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard
cutters were becoming severely overcrowded, and on November 18, 1991, the United
States forcibly returned 538 Haitians to Haiti.
Pre-Screening and Repatriation. The options for safe havens in third countries
in the region proved inadequate for the sheer numbers of Haitians fleeing their country,
and the former Bush Administration began treating the Haitians fleeing by boat as asylum
seekers. The Coast Guard took them to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, where
they were pre-screened for asylum in the United States. During this period, there were
approximately 10,490 Haitians who were paroled into the United States after a pre-
screening interview at Guantanamo determined that they had a credible fear of persecution
if returned to Haiti. On May 24, 1992, citing the surge of Haitians that month, then-
President Bush ordered the Coast Guard to intercept all Haitians in boats and immediately
return them without interviews to determine whether they were at risk of persecution. The
Administration offered those repatriated the option of in-country refugee processing.7
Safe Haven and Refugee Processing. The repatriation policy continued for
two years, until then-President Bill Clinton announced that interdicted Haitians would be
taken to a location in the region where they would be processed as potential refugees. The
refugee processing policy lasted only a few weeks — June 15 to July 5, 1994. Much like
the former Bush Administration, the Clinton Administration cited the exodus of Haitian
boat people as a reason for suspending refugee processing. Instead, the new policy became
one of regional “safe havens” where interdicted Haitians who expressed a fear of
persecution could stay, but they would not be allowed to come to the United States. In
7 CRS Report 93-233, Asylum Seekers: Haitians in Comparative Context, by Ruth Ellen Wasem.
(Archived report available upon request.)
In December 1997, President Clinton instructed the Attorney General to grant deferred
enforced departure (DED) to Haitians for one year. Currently interdicted Haitians who
expressed a fear of persecution are taken for a credible fear hearing at the Guantanamo
Bay detention center. If deemed a refugee, they are resettled in the third country. In 2005,
only 9 of the 1,850 interdicted Haitians received a credible fear hearing and, of those —
one man was granted refugee status.8
Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA). When Congress
enacted the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) in
November 1997 that enabled Nicaraguans and Cubans to become legal permanent
residents and permitted certain unsuccessful Central American and East European asylum
applicants to seek another form of immigration relief, it opted not to include Haitian
asylum seekers. The following year, Congress enacted the Haitian Refugee Immigration
Fairness Act (HRIFA) of 1998 (S. 1504/H.R. 3049) that enabled Haitians who filed
asylum claims or who were paroled into the United States before December 31, 1995, to
adjust to legal permanent residence. HRIFA was added to the FY1999 Omnibus
Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act (P.L. 105-277) at theth9
close of the 105 Congress. According to the most recent data available, almost 26,000
Haitians have adjusted under HRIFA through FY2006.
Mandatory Detention of Aliens in Expedited Removal. Since enactment of
the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 (P.L.
104-208), aliens arriving in the United States without proper immigration documents are
immediately placed in expedited removal. If an alien expresses a fear of being forced to
return home, the immigration inspector refers the alien to a asylum officer who
determines whether the person has a “credible fear.” IIRIRA requires that those aliens
must be kept in detention while their “credible fear” cases are pending.10 As a result,
those Haitians who do make it to U.S. shores and do express a fear of repatriation are
placed in detention. After the credible fear determination, the case is referred to an
Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) immigration judge for an asylum and
removal hearing, (during which there is no statutory requirement that aliens be detained).
EOIR granted asylum to 570 Haitians and denied asylum to 2,522 Haitians in FY2006.11
National Security Risk. The former INS published a notice clarifying that certain
aliens arriving by sea who are not admitted or paroled are to be placed in expedited
removal proceedings and detained (subject to humanitarian parole) in November 2002.12
This notice concluded that illegal mass migration by sea threatened national security
because it diverts the Coast Guard and other resources from their homeland security
8 Miami Herald, “U.S. Policy Unjust to Haitians Fleeing Violence,” January 9, 2006; data
confirmed in telephone conversation with DHS officials, January 12, 2006.
9 CRS Report 98-270, Immigration: Haitian Relief Issues and Legislation, by Ruth Ellen Wasem.
10 CRS Report RL33109, Immigration Policy on Expedited Removal of Aliens, by Alison Siskin
and Ruth Ellen Wasem.
11 U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2006 Statistical
12 Federal Register, vol. 67, no. 219, pp. 68923-68926 (November 13, 2002).
duties. The Attorney General expanded on this rationale in his April 17, 2003 ruling that
instructs EOIR immigration judges to consider “national security interests implicated by
the encouragement of further unlawful mass migrations...” in making bond determinations
regarding release from detention of unauthorized migrants who arrive in “the United
States by sea seeking to evade inspection.”13 The case involved a Haitian who had come
ashore in Biscayne Bay, Florida, on October 29, 2002, and had been released on bond by
an immigration judge. EOIR’s Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) had upheld his
release, but the Attorney General vacated the BIA decision.14
Administrative Roles. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-296)
abolished INS and transferred most of its functions from the Department of Justice (DOJ)
to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). At least five federal agencies now
handle Haitian migrants: DHS’s Coast Guard (interdiction); Customs and Border
Protection (apprehensions and inspections); Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(detention); U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (credible fear determination); and
DOJ’s EOIR (asylum and removal hearings).
Parole from Detention. DOJ acknowledges that it instructed field operations “to
adjust parole criteria with respect to all inadmissible Haitians arriving in South Florida
after December 3, 2001, and that none of them should be paroled without the approval of
headquarters.”15 The Administration maintains that paroling Haitians (as is typically done
for aliens who meet the credible fear threshold) may encourage other Haitians to embark
on the “risky sea travel” and “potentially trigger a mass asylum from Haiti to the United
States.” The Administration further argues that all migrants who arrive by sea pose a risk
to national security and warns that terrorists may pose as Haitian asylum seekers. Critics
of the Administration’s Haitian parole policy focus on the 167 Haitians detained after
their boat ran aground in South Florida on December 3, 2001, a majority of whom
reportedly passed the initial credible fear hearing. Critics maintain that the Haitians are
being singled out for more restrictive treatment.16 They challenge the view that Haitians
pose a risk to national security and assert that the term is being construed too broadly,
being applied arbitrarily to Haitians, and wasting limited resources.17
Access to Legal Counsel. Concern has also arisen that the detention of Haitians
is interfering with access to legal counsel to aid with their asylum cases. According to
congressional testimony, attorneys in South Florida for the detained Haitians maintain that
13 23 I&N December 572 (A.G. 2003).
14 CRS Report RL32369, Immigration-Related Detention: Current Legislative Issues, by Alison
15 Letter from Daniel J. Bryant, Assistant Attorney General, to Sens. Edward Kennedy and Sam
Brownback, dated September 25, 2002.
16 U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration, Hearing on the
Detention and Treatment of Haitian Asylum Seekers, October 1, 2002. (Hereafter cited as Senate
Subcommittee on Immigration, Hearing on Haitian Asylum Seekers.)
17 George Lardner Jr., “More Illegal Immigrants Can Be Held Ashcroft’s Ruling Cites National
Security Issues,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2003, p. A6.
they face various obstacles, including restricted hours to meet with clients and a serious
lack of adequate visitation space. Pro bono lawyers working with Haitians argued that
they experienced long delays waiting to see clients.18 Others point out that the expedited
removal provisions in INA were enacted to do just that — expedite removals. Aliens
without proper immigration documents who try to enter the United States, they argue,
should not be afforded the same procedural and legal rights as aliens who enter legally.
Temporary Protected Status. Some call for DHS to grant Temporary Protected19
Status (TPS) to Haitians in the United States. For example, they point out that the U.S.
Ambassador declared Haiti a disaster in September 2004 due to the magnitude of the
effects of Tropical Storm Jeanne. The massive storm and flooding killed almost 2,000
people and left over 200,000 people homeless. An estimated 80% of crops were destroyed.
Some maintain that Haiti can not handle the return of nationals due to the environmental
disaster and that there are extraordinary and temporary conditions in Haiti that prevent
Haitians from returning safely. Others stated that conditions in Haiti do not warrant TPS.
They warned that any policy shift to provide immigration relief would prompt a mass
exodus of Haitians, which in turn would divert and strain homeland security resources.
Legislation that would provide TPS to Haitians (H.R. 522) has been introduced in the 110th
Status Adjustment. Several versions of the legislation on comprehensive
immigration reform that stalled in the Senate in June 2007 (e.g., S. 1348 and S. 1639)
include provisions that would enable many of the Haitians in the United States without
authorization to adjust to LPR status under certain circumstances and with some penalties.
In the House, H.R. 1645 also includes provisions that would allow HRIFA adjustments
to encompass a child of an applicant based on the child’s age and status on October 21,
1998. H.R. 750 would, among other things, authorize the adjustment of status for certain
nationals or citizens of Haiti who are present in the United States. H.R. 454 would amend
HRIFA to provide that determinations with respect to children be made according to their
age and status as of October 21, 1998; would permit an application based upon child status
to be filed by a parent or guardian if the child is present in the United States on such filing
date; and would include document fraud among the grounds of inadmissibility, which shall
not preclude an otherwise qualifying Haitian alien from permanent resident status
Legislation in the 110th Congress. Notably thus far, §105 of the FY2008
Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 110-161) continue the prohibition of the use of
funds to provide visas to certain aliens who were involved in political violence in Haiti.
The Act also deletes the requirement that the Comptroller General of the United States
submit to Congress a status report on HRIFA applications every six months.
18 Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Hearing on Haitian Asylum Seekers
19 TPS is blanket relief from removal that the Administration may grant for humanitarian reasons.
CRS Report RS20844, Temporary Protected Status: Current Immigration Policy and Issues, by
Ruth Ellen Wasem and Karma Ester.