What If Haiti Can't Be Saved?

Food and relief and American know-how may not be enough for Haiti. We may need to let its residents leave.

01.15.10 10:41 PM ET

After the devastating earthquake that has leveled Port-au-Prince and led to the deaths of tens of thousands, the Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of offering temporary protected status to illegal immigrants from Haiti. The logic behind the decision is compelling. However strongly one might object to the fact that well over 100,000 Haitians are living illegally in the United States, deporting them now would be worse than cruel. Plagued by violence and poverty for most of its history, Haiti has been brought to the edge of anarchy. Sending Haitian workers home isn't exactly a death sentence. But it is troublingly close.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is give Haitians an opportunity to build a better life elsewhere.

Temporary protected status is meant to last 18 months, during which time we can hope that some semblance of order will be restored. Even then, however, it's not clear that the Haitians who've been given a reprieve will be able to find decent jobs at home, let alone the kind of jobs that will allow them to support large extended families. Mark Schneider and Bernice Robertson of the International Crisis Group have argued that recovering from the earthquake will take at least a decade of intense effort. Somehow, Haitians living in the United States, and the over 9 million Haitians at home forced to endure lawless chaos before and after the earthquake, will have to find a more lasting solution.

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There is something about the power of grisly televised images that brings out the best in Americans. The United States government has performed admirably in Haiti so far, just as it did during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Yet there are miserable corners of the world where cameras and correspondents are few and far between, and Haiti has been one of them for at least the past 15 years. Many have already said that America's callous indifference to Haiti's slow-motion collapse over this long and painful period is a national embarrassment. Given the deep problems that Haiti faces, however, it's not clear what the United States could have done that would have proven more effective than Bill Clinton's 1994 humanitarian intervention, which, like so many armed interventions, ended in failure and retreat. Perhaps the best thing we could do is go beyond temporary protected status and, working in concert with the European Union and other affluent countries and regions, give Haitians an opportunity to build a better life elsewhere.

In 2008, economists Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett, both affiliated with the highly innovative Center for Global Development, published "Income per Natural: Measuring Development as if People Mattered More Than Places." Rather than measure a country's GDP per resident, they devised a new statistic called income per natural, "the mean annual income of persons born in a given country," including migrants who've left their native country in search of economic opportunity. So while the American-born Johnny Depp doesn't contribute to U.S. GDP per resident while residing in France, he does bump up its income per natural. As you might expect, poverty levels look very different for national residents and naturals, and the authors offer Haiti as a prime example. Clemens and Pritchett argue that income per natural demonstrates the tremendous power of international migration as a poverty-fighting tool. Moving from one country to another can dramatically improve your life chances, even without expensive investments in education. Incredibly, over a quarter of Haitian naturals who live on more than $2 a day, a global measure of extreme poverty, live in the United States. It is hardly surprising that thousands of Haitians risk their lives to settle in the United States and the Dominican Republic and many other countries besides.

There are literally dozens of countries across the world that are what Pritchett, in his provocative book Let Their People Come, calls "zombies." In the Old West, cities abandoned when the local gold mine dried up were called "ghost towns." Zombies are essentially ghost towns that you can never leave. The economic opportunities are all gone, but barriers to migration are just high enough that people are forced to stay put, almost as though they were walled in a penitentiary. Though we all want to believe that Haiti and countries like it can eventually become as rich as successful as the U.S. or South Korea or Botswana, the sad fact is that some countries have been handed a raw deal by virtue of climate, resources, and the scarring effects of a cruel colonial history. It is possible that Haiti can't be saved. But that doesn't mean that Haitians can't save themselves, provided we start breaking down the walls that have kept them hemmed in.

It should go without saying that the United States will not offer temporary protected status to illegal immigrants from every country in the world plagued by poverty and violence. The demand for the opportunity to work in the United States is overwhelming, and the economic downturn has not put Americans in a generous mood. But if we're serious about helping Haitians, we have to do something more than text $5 to the relief effort.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.