In Haiti, Migration Can Mean Heartbreak for Families

A new program makes it easier for Haitians to move to the United States, but for those selected, it can be an agonizing decision.

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In Haiti, Migration Can Mean Heartbreak for Families

Illustration by Matt Haney, GPJ

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CAP-HAÏTIEN, HAITI — Youdeline Garçon has lived in the United States for seven months. Two days after arriving from Haiti, she gave birth to her first child. Her husband wasn’t there.

Garçon, who has been married for about a year and a half, met her husband at the university in 2017. When she got pregnant after their wedding, they were both thrilled.

“It was a tough pregnancy for me. But my husband was always there for me during this difficult time and gave me all the love and support I needed,” Garçon says.

But then Garçon traveled to the US alone, while pregnant, following a successful application to the Humanitarian Parole program, commonly known in Haiti as “The Biden program.” A family member sponsored Garçon.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services launched the free online process in October 2022 for Venezuelans and January 2023 for Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, allowing nationals of these countries to move to the country legally for up to two years. Up to 30,000 people a month can qualify to move to the US under the program, but each must be financially sponsored by a US resident and undergo rigorous security screening.

If she’d had her baby in Haiti, Garçon would have been forced to leave it behind or submit a separate application for the infant to join the program. So she raced against the clock. But not having her husband with her during such an important moment has been difficult.

While migration can offer economic opportunities, the separation of families is an unavoidable side effect for some, such as Garçon. Although her husband applied to migrate under the same program, his application wasn’t successful.

At the end of April 2023, 39,000 Haitian nationals had been authorized to travel to the United States under this program, according to a tweet by the US Embassy in Haiti. But some of these nationals must leave their families behind.

“When I was told I would need a C-section, I was very nervous and worried,” Garçon says, in reference to the surgical procedure she underwent to give birth. “That is when I really started to miss my husband. I knew that, under different circumstances, he would have been there with me for the birth of our first child.”

Haiti and migration

Economic migration has been a critical part of Haiti’s history since the 1970s, when rising poverty and political oppression led thousands of Haitians to flee the country, mostly arriving in South Florida, in the US. Over the decades, their routes have changed. According to a 2020 study published by Haiti’s Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development, migration has facilitated both the survival of vulnerable Haitians and the upward mobility of others. It has also been a coping mechanism for many in times of political, economic and social instability. In the wake of the 2010 earthquake, this migration history took on a new dimension. Haitians increasingly left for other Latin American countries, creating transit destinations, as people hoped to eventually make it to final destinations such as the US.

The new US program therefore offers much needed relief.

Nathasha Charles’ husband moved to the US a few months ago, leaving her alone with their only child, a 9-month-old. Charles is a young nurse. She and her husband have known each other for 10 years and are inseparable, she says. Unlike Garçon, Charles’ husband was with her for the birth of their first child. But a few months later, he had to leave the country.

Each day, Charles juggles her time between working as a nurse and looking after her child, whom her younger sister helps take care of. She speaks to her husband on the phone daily and says it’s the only way for them to remain close.

“You have to have a lot of patience to put up with a situation like that. It’s not easy raising a child without a father and having to part with someone you love,” she says.

The program, however, presents a way out for many Haitian families.

“Hearing about this program was one of the best pieces of news we could have received,” Garçon says. “It would be such a big opportunity for us if our baby was born in the United States. We were so excited about that idea that we didn’t think about the pain we would feel following our separation.”

She misses her husband, whom she describes as the love of her life, and looks forward to when they will be reunited. She’s not sure when that will be.

Benefits for Haiti?

According to a 2021 report published in the International Journal of Children’s Rights, several studies show that remittances from migrant workers allow the families left behind to access better education, nutrition and health services.

In 2022, remittances made up 22% of Haiti’s gross domestic product, the 12th highest share in the world, according to estimates from the World Bank. These figures are double what they were a decade ago and outpace the average share of remittances in other Caribbean countries, which stands at 6% of GDP.

But the financial benefit of migration is only one part of the equation.

According to a 2021 study published in the Sri Lankan Journal of Business Economics, when a parent goes abroad to work and sends money home, it can empower families to provide better educations for their children, or keep a child from having to work to support the family. This separation can, however, lead to emotional distress for children. A 2016 study in Social Science & Medicine, an academic journal, found that parental migration increased a family’s consumption levels but did not improve children’s health and cognitive abilities. In three of the four countries studied (India, Peru and Vietnam), parental migration actually decreased children’s health outcomes, and in India and Vietnam, children scored lower on cognitive tests.

At the national level, there is also the question of what happens when a country loses a huge proportion of its workforce. According to the 2020 study by Haiti’s Interuniversity Institute, “Reliance on remittances is an insufficient strategy if the nation is to chart a course towards development.”

Charles does not believe that the Humanitarian Parole program is necessarily beneficial for Haiti. “I believe we are being put in a situation where we are forced to leave the country. Some young people aren’t even interested in going to school anymore. They are not trying to do anything; all they do is wait and hope they’ll be able to go to the United States.”

Effects of separation

Social worker Denjina Placide, who works at Caring For Haitian Orphans with AIDS, a nonprofit, says that when children grow up in a stable environment with their parents, they live in a climate of emotional safety, which fosters their development.

“On the other hand, if one of the parents leaves the home to live in another country, the child is likely to experience anxiety disorders, identity crises, emotional dependency and tantrums. A refusal to obey rules and lower school performances can also be seen in such children.”

The economics of leaving Haiti

“Many Haitians would not have considered leaving their country and their families if the socioeconomic conditions were different,” Charles says. “Young people are worried about their future, and it remains the only obvious solution for Haitians who can’t meet their needs and their families’ needs.”

Haitians abroad can be a lifeline for their families. According to the study by Haiti’s Interuniversity Institute, “Haitians living abroad have contributed substantially to Haiti’s nascent economy, and since emigration has remained constant and, in some cases, increased, they will remain vital to the survival of families, communities and therefore the Haitian economy.”

The support from Haiti’s diaspora community covers the costs of basic needs such as food, housing and clothing, as well as medical expenses. It even extends to covering investments in land, real estate and businesses. In a country where public spending on social programs is half the regional average, remittances are a vital income source.

The future

Both Charles and Garçon hope to reunite with their husbands soon, but they know they are not alone. They have no idea when the reunification will be, but they’re doing what they can to make it happen.

“I think that families in this situation need to be tolerant, understanding and practice open communication,” Garçon says. “It’s a difficult phase, but love can overcome anything.”

Verlande Cadet is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Haiti.