America's Haitian Influx

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America's Haitian Influx

Book excerpt

By: Alistair Cooke

Date: June 25, 1993

Source: Cooke, Alistair. Letters From America: 1946–2004. New York: Allen Lane, 2004.

About the Author: Alistair Cooke was a British-born journalist and broadcaster, who lived and worked in the United States from the mid-1930s for the rest of his life. Between 1946 and 2004 he gave a fifteen-minute weekly talk about aspects of life in America, which was broadcast on BBC Radio. This became Britain's longest-running speech radio program. Alistair Cooke died in 2004, a few weeks after his retirement.


In this book excerpt, a written record of one of the speeches of the broadcaster Alistair Cooke, the author reflects on the ways in which refugees and other migrants have been treated under United States immigration and reception policies, and how their treatment has often been inconsistent with the welcoming messages that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Although the United States has traditionally seen a current of immigration from many different countries of the world, Cooke illustrates that restrictive immigration measures and informal types of discrimination have reflected fears about the impact of large numbers of migrants from particular countries or ethnic groups. At the time this speech was written, the United States was experiencing an influx of asylum seekers from Haiti, who were regarded mainly as economic migrants rather than genuine refugees. These people were the target of restrictive admissions policies designed to deter further migration from Haiti to the United States.

Before the Immigration Act of 1924, immigration to the United States had been virtually unrestricted, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived since the mid-nineteenth century, mostly from Western European countries. As Cooke notes, however, entry was never guaranteed, as migrants were subject to medical examinations on arrival and returned to their home countries if they showed signs of disease. Moreover, earlier legislative restrictions on the immigration of people from particular races, particularly the Chinese and Japanese were enacted, in response to outbreaks of xenophobic (foreign-fearing) attitudes and racial violence.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, concerns about rapidly rising levels of immigration and its impact on American society led to a quota system that would control the numbers of immigrants to the United States from different countries. In order to maintain a stable racial distribution, quotas were based upon the number of immigrants from different countries already in the United States, and proportionately more immigrants from the western hemisphere were allowed entry than from the eastern hemisphere. In practice, the quotas allowed almost unrestricted immigration from western European countries, severely restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and virtually banned immigration from Asia. The system remained in operation until 1968, when the quotas on immigrants from the western and eastern hemispheres were equalized, then later merged. New quotas of 20,000 visas were then applied to every country, leading to a surge in immigration from Latin America and Asia.

The United States has had less control over influxes of refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries, such as the Haitians in the early 1990s. Under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, people who flee their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of another social group, or political opinion, should not be returned to that country to face persecution or the threat of persecution. It is, however, up to immigration officers in the country in which they claim asylum to determine whether they show adequate proof of persecution or the threat of persecution.

The U.S. government chose to regard the majority of the Haitian boat people as economic migrants from a poverty-ridden country, rather than refugees fleeing a brutal regime. With the exception of small numbers of particularly vulnerable migrants, such as the HIV positive refugees mentioned by Cooke, the majority of the boat people were intercepted at sea and interviewed by immigration officers on board U.S. vessels. Until 1991, almost all were returned to Haiti as they could not demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution. Later that year, when almost 10,000 Haitians fled their country, asylum interviews were held at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and at this time, about one-third were granted refugee status and allowed to enter the United States However, when the numbers of Haitian asylum seekers continued to increase over the following years, a new policy was adopted, in which the camps at Guantánamo Bay were used as a "safe haven" for those deemed to be genuine refugees, but none were granted entry to the United States.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


In January 1995, after the fall of the dictatorship in Haiti, the United States began repatriating all Haitians from Guantánamo Bay. The safe haven policy had been successful in U.S. immigration policy terms in restricting the entry of vast numbers of Haitian nationals to the United States, while at the same time conforming to the requirements of international refugee law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had approved the safe haven proposals as providing protection within the framework of the UN Refugee Convention. Many Haitians chose to return voluntarily to their country even before the change of government there, when it became clear they would not be granted asylum in the United States.



Glazer, Nathan. Clamor at the Gates: The New American Immigration. New York: ICS Press, 1985.

Munz, Rainer. Migrants, Refugees, and Foreign Policy: U.S. and German Policies toward Countries of Origin. New York: Berghahn Books, 1997.

Zucker, Naomi Flink, and Norman L. Zucker. Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

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America's Haitian Influx

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America's Haitian Influx