Migration from the Caribbean: Issues for the 1990s
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Recent political and economic events in Cuba and Haiti have put the spotlight once again on Caribbean migration, and on U.S. political and policy responses to it. The ``crisis'' provoked by new waves of boat people leaving the islands in flimsy craft, changes in the long-established special status granted to Cuban refugees, the U.S. role in restoring President Aristide to office in Haiti, and resurgent anti-immigrant sentiments in the United States, call for sustained attention and demand serious reflection on the current and likely future situation.
To address the issues and look to the future, an international group of specialists participated in a forum in Ann Arbor on April 3, 1995. The forum was organized by the Program on Latin American and Caribbean Studies, with support from a wide range of University units. Participants included Dr. Armando Fernández Soriano, of the Centro de Estudios de America, Havana Cuba; Dr. Cecilia Green, Center for Afro-American and African Studies, U-M; and Dr. Sylvia Pedraza of the Department of Sociology, U-M.
The first step in understanding Caribbean migration is to put it in context. Scholars and observers need to look beyond the terms of debate presented in U.S. media or political discussions and ask what migration means for those making the difficult, often dangerous decision to leave their home islands.
Migration has historically been central in the formation of Caribbean countries. Throughout the region, migration patterns have, over time, responded to economic and political developments within the islands and to the impact of international forces ranging from investment and trade regulations to changes in the character of immigration policy in receiving countries including the United States, England, and France. The presentations and debate last April 3 concentrated on these elements, with special attention to identifying long-term economic, social, and political trends that shape Caribbean migration now, as in the past.
Dr. Fernández Soriano underscored the importance of economic factors, above all the recent impact of economic restructuring and related changes in the labor market. High and sustained levels of unemployment, along with changes in the structure of jobs available to a primarily young labor force, combined to give a new push to desires to migrate. The decline of traditional sources of employment in agriculture and mining, along with the concentration of new investment in tourism produced a decided growth in the informal sector and a visible increase in social marginality throughout the islands.
At the same time, characteristically weak state structures and a widespread inability to deliver basic services exacerbated the problem. For some time, Cuba appeared to be different, and Fernández Soriano paid special attention to the Cuban case.
Cubas relatively high level of economic development and the extensive social services provided to its population shielded that country from migratory cycles driven by economic depression. There was migration of course, but it was primarily driven by political motives. With the Mariel exodus of the early 1980s, however, political and economic elements began to reinforce one another.
Cubas lengthy and severe economic decline produced scarcities, cutbacks in services, and a succession of emergency ``regimes'' intended to reorganize the economy and sustain the political system. The crisis of socialism and disappearance of the Soviet Union dramatically reinforced these pressures while undercutting the capacity of the state to respond effectively. The result was that economic crisis and political crisis converged in Cuba, sparking new migratory pressures in the 1990s.
These pressures culminated in open protests and waves of boat people and rafters leaving Cuba in the summer of 1994. Most of these migrants were young men (20-35 years old) whose decision to leave Cuba was grounded above all in economic motives: a desire to ``make their destiny'' somewhere else.
In the United States, the political impact of this new wave of Cuban ``boat people'' was magnified during mid- 1994 by the crisis of Haitian politics. From the point of view of American policy, the result of these events was to ``Haitianize'' U.S. policy towards Caribbean migration as a whole, eliminating the special preference Cubans had long enjoyed as ``political,'' not just economic refugees. Boat people would now be interned with a view to ultimate return to their home country.
Fernandez Soriano argued that 1994 was a harbinger of events and pressures to come. Over three million new jobs must be created by 2010 in the region simply to maintain the unemployment levels of 1980. This would require very high levels of new investment, an unlikely prospect.
Dr. Cecilia Green distinguished the experience of the English-speaking Caribbean (especially Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad) from Haiti, and laid particular emphasis on three points. Since the 19th century, migration in the Caribbean has not only been outward, to the U.S. and Europe, but also among the islands themselves, as islanders moved to areas of new growth. The expansion of direct, capital-intensive and even labor- intensive foreign investment accelerated the push to migration out of the region by squeezing small scale agriculture and manufacturing and displacing their workers. Indeed, large scale migration to the U.S. took off in the 1960s at a time when many countries of origin were experiencing accelerated economic growth.
Further, the common image of migrants is distorted. Conventional wisdom sees migrants as mostly male, mostly unskilled, and somehow ``threatening'' to social order. Using the experience of the Anglophone Caribbean, Green argued that from the point of view of the islands themselves, migration is better viewed as a ``brain drain'' than as an expulsion of the least fit and least skilled. Most migrants are in fact women, and as a group their educational and skill levels are well above average. Many migrants are trained as teachers and nurses and exercise these professions in their new homes. In addition, Green showed that migratory flows have decisively shifted over time towards the U.S.: there are now more West Indians living in New York than in all of Europe.
The final point is to stress the decisive combination of economic decay within the Caribbean with growing immigration restrictions in the U.S. and Europe. French and British immigration policies became substantially more restrictive and racially selective in the 1960s and 1970s. The French government took steps to encourage migrants to return to their place of origin, and the British Immigration Act of 1968 drastically limited a hitherto open flow of West Indian (along with other Commonwealth) migration to the United Kingdom. Recent changes in U.S. policy, by realizing the ``Hatianization'' noted earlier, completed the portrait. The result has been less to restrict the overall number of migrants, than to shift the balance towards the undocumented, who bring with them a host of legal and other difficulties.
In an extended commentary on the presentations, Sylvia Pedraza emphasized the need to balance economic pressures driving migration with appreciation of political elements. In the case of Cuba, officials have clearly used migration as a safety valve, externalizing discontent with the regime by letting people go when pressures get too great.
The current arrangement with the U.S. eliminates this option, with as yet uncertain consequences. Pedraza argued strongly that an exclusive focus on the economic sources of migration also serves policy makers and publics in the U.S. as a means of not listening to the political demands of people in the Caribbean, in particular to the demand for greater freedom and personal security.
The forum was attended by a large group of faculty, students, and members of the community with interests in the Caribbean. Discussion from the floor centered on three areas. Questions were raised about the effects of changing U.S. policy towards investment and tax-free zones in the region. Joint venture deals and offshore assembly bring new jobs, but the jobs are low-level and the whole effort hinges on subsidies.
A second issue concerned the elements of race and gender in migration. Many see racism as a factor in the ``Haitianization'' of U.S. policy, and in anti-immigrant sentiment of the kind that led to the victory of Proposition 187 in California.
Finally, several commentators saw how shifts in policy now fit into the long-term pattern of U.S. and European economic and political ties to the region.
Although no definitive conclusion was reached, the presentations and subsequent discussion made it clear that the changes affecting Caribbean migration in the 1990s are not unique, but rather have much in common with what is going on elsewhere in the world. The forces that drive people to leave homes on Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica or Dominica are similar to those bringing guest workers from North Africa or the Near East to Spain, Germany, Italy, or France.
Host country policies have also changed in parallel ways, with restriction and harsh, often openly racist attitudes playing a growing role in political debate. The convergence of macro economic forces and political conflicts driving migration with backlash and restriction in the receiving countries suggests that the dilemmas of migration, and the collective tragedy of boat people and their families, are here to stay, and may well get worse in the future.
Daniel H. Levine is Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Program in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at U-M.