Haitian immigrants seem lost in their early days in the United States despite a large amount of information at their disposal
July 4th, late afternoon. Binghamton, upstate New York – the four Dure brothers sit on the porch sipping beers while reminiscing about past 4th of July barbecues. They’ve celebrated their adopted country’s independence for over thirty years.
Having immigrated to the United States in the early 90s, the first of the Dure started to leave Haiti at the end of the 1950s, well before them. Back then, life was tough – with blatant racism, the cold weather, and a minimum wage of less than $5 per hour. They had to understand English as rapidly, in a completely new environment where orientation and adaptation were not easy. However, their priority was integrating quickly, and they eventually succeeded. Between the ’70s and ’90s, the family managed to support three generations settling in the United States.
“Now, most Haitians manage to understand a bit of English. They have access to the culture via music and movies. And mainly, there’s this,” says Denis, pointing to his smartphone. When he and his little brother finished high school in the US, there was no cell phone. The Internet wasn’t popular either. Whether to figure out which road to take, how to get a driver’s license, or to gather immigration information, the how-to was way less accessible in the 1990s and before. For everything, they had to refer to Haitians who had already settled in the US.
Hard to get rid of word of mouth
Between 2010 and today, Haitians leaving the country are younger and more educated. Data on the population of Haitian migrants in the US (published by Migration Policy in August 2020, revised in September 2022), shows that about 77 percent of Haitian immigrants were of working age, between 18-64. Seventy-nine percent of Haitians ages 25 and over had a high school diploma or higher, and the share of Haitian immigrants with a bachelor’s degree or higher was around 19 percent.
“We may have diplomas, be career professionals, and be used to researching on Google, but once here, the reflex remains that we go to Haitians from the community at the start for everything,” maintains Farah Odney. She migrated at the beginning of 2022.
Like many Haitian immigrants, she relies on the support of her family. So, upon her arrival, Fahra sought information through her family and acquaintances. And the information rained down, often out of date, with some of it being completely incorrect. For this audiovisual professional, this reflex is likely to be abused.
Olivier Condé and his wife, two young successful marketing professionals, moved to the United States in 2015. Like the Dure, many members of their families were already settled in New York City, and most of their cousins were born in the US. Therefore, Oliver and his wife’s first days as immigrants were different.
Whenever they came up with a question or need, their cousins would refer them to the source. To open a bank account or rent a house, they would be referred to a bank website or a real estate agency website. As a result, they switched from asking to looking for the information themselves.
Every day, a lot of information is shared on the Internet. Much of it is about immigration.
The freemium online RSS feed reader, Feedspot, grants access to over 50 blogs and websites that publish accurate information and updates on US Immigration, credits, and how immigrants can find their path into the country. And there are no less than 25 podcasts and YouTube channels on the subject matter.
Community organizations to guide
Yet to this day, immigrants who come to the Haitian Women’s Office for Haitian Refugees (HWHR) are referred by others who have previously been assisted. The organization has been providing immigration services to the community for thirty years. With the support of immigration centers and law firms offering pro bono services, HWHR accompanies Haitians throughout the immigration process.
The organization has received many Haitian immigrants who entered the country by crossing the US-Mexico border. From 2010 to date, the flow of Haitian immigrants to the United States has increased.
Due to COVID-19, the duration of humanitarian parole currently varies between six months to a year. Work permits and their validity are linked to the duration of the humanitarian parole. USCIS has a backlog in issuing the work permit card. Immigrants, therefore, do not have enough time to submit their applications.
The organization sometimes cannot support newcomers as quickly as they would like due to a lack of available lawyers. The organization has also observed that immigrants were reaching out to people who were not necessarily qualified to assist them in obtaining a work permit, which exposes them to fraud.
Ninaj Raoul, co-founder and community organizer of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, said, “the important thing is to survive, and the wait can be frustrating.”
To overcome this, the organization and other partners wish to produce short informational videos to continue to provide the best support possible.
A reflex linked to something deeper
Eight out of ten Haitian immigrants we interviewed admit that they do not call or go to administrative offices for fear of not speaking English correctly or out of fear of being ridiculed. Seven of them say it’s strongly linked to the lack of access to information and public services in their country of origin. The language barrier is an essential element that prevents immigrants from going out to seek resources.
“I believe that for the generations of twenty, thirty, forty and more, we keep this reflex because we emigrate from a country where information is not easily accessible and services even less. Obtaining services from the public administration has somehow become a privilege. Everything is obtained more easily by contact,” says Olivier Condé.
Thus, even if they find themselves in a new environment, they tend to forget that access to information is a right, not a privilege, regardless of their status in the country.