Haitian Immigration to Canada Post-Earthquake: Thoughts and Lessons Learned
January 12th marked the second anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. This event, which resulted in the deaths of over 300,000 individuals and the displacement of 1.5 million more, marked a turning point in the history of the country and the region.
Nowhere were the international repercussions of this catastrophe more acutely felt than in Canada. Before the earthquake more than 100,000 citizens of Haitian descent lived in Canada, primarily in Quebec, and a further 6,000 in Haiti itself. It was with this shared political and cultural history in mind that our country initially led global efforts for emergency relief. Perhaps most importantly, Citizenship and Immigration Canada enacted an unprecedented plan to expedite Permanent Residency processing for thousands of Haitians waiting to receive word of their applications. Unfortunately, though this plan held the promise of reuniting countless families stricken by tragedy, it has failed to fully deliver on this promise.
Traditionally, family class sponsorship – the sponsoring of one’s close family in Permanent Residency applications – is a long process that can take one or more years. Despite critical losses of staff and infrastructure in Haiti, Canadian government officials pledged to expand the process in several ways. Firstly, Quebecois Haitians were allowed to broaden sponsorship restrictions to include adult siblings, nieces and nephews, and aunts and uncles. Secondly, adoption proceedings already in queue were immediately ratified, allowing Canadians to bring 217 children to their new homes within days of the quake. Additional measures were put in place to allow Haitians in Canada temporarily to extend their stay and secure open work permits.
These measures were initially greeted with praise from local and international communities, as well as hope from within Haiti. In the weeks following the disaster, the Canadian embassy saw hundreds of hopeful immigrants crowd its doors, passports in hand. Educated Haitians pledged to contribute to Canadian society. “I am a marketing professional, I speak English and French, and my family is in Canada. I think Canada should welcome me,” said Jean-Louis Claude Stuart as he stood near the embassy gates.
Two years later, it is doubtful that Jean-Louis’ hopes were realized. A month after the earthquake, only 22 permanent residency applications had been processed. Citing reduced efficiency and a backlog of refugee claimants, Canadian officials have been unable to date to accommodate the high volume of requests for expedited processing. Quebec Minister of Immigration Kathleen Weil stated that over 3,000 Haitians have arrived in Montreal each year under the auspices of the expedited program, but that a further 5,000 are still waiting to receive word on their applications. Detractors have criticized the immigration program as classist, arguing that the standard income requirements of sponsoring family members should have been waived for Haitians, many of whom are working class and thus did not qualify. “They’re saying if your family has enough money, you can bring them here. Does that mean […] the people with more money were in more necessity than others? What kind of priority is that?” stated a Haitian resident of Montreal.
In the face of these setbacks, the Canadian government has been keen to underscore its continued commitment to Haitians in both countries. The Canadian International Development Agency is quick to point out that Canada has pledged $1 billion to assist in further development (though much of this figure encompasses debt relief and aid already pledged before the quake). On January 10th, 2012, the government announced a new $20 million effort to relocate some 20,000 refugees from the area surrounding the rubble of the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
Compared to foreign aid, expediting immigration procedures has the ability to directly transform not only the lives of qualified Haitians, but those of their friends and family members as well. It is also a much more transparent and straightforward process, requiring none of the extensive oversight of funds needed when conducting work in a developing country. Moreover, the need to wade through international red tape, coordinate with global organizations, and risk uncertain returns on one’s contributions is greatly diminished. Indeed, the Haitian population has already proved to be a vital part of Canada’s cultural mosaic, and new arrivals would be welcomed into a well assimilated and established community. In this sense, there is the chance for a high degree of positive return on the time and money needed to accelerate application processing.
Canada already has intricate and refined immigration systems in place. To not take advantage of these in order to assist eligible Haitians runs the risk of appearing apathetic in the public sphere. This will not go unnoticed by Canadians, who through donations have shown their continued concern for Haiti. Moreover, by reaffirming its ties with Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Canada could continue to position itself as a leader of economic and social development throughout the Americas. If Canada acted more effectively on its promise to welcome Haitians to Canada, it would not only gain respect of the international community, but the lasting gratitude of thousands of prospective residents.