Haitian immigration to North America is a relatively new phenomenon, the product of right-wing political oppression and political instability since the 1950s. According to the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, there were 548,199 Haitian Americans and 82,405 Haitian Canadians, respectively. Between 1930 and 2000, some 400,000 Haitians immigrated to the United States, with 85 percent of them arriving after 1970. About 95 percent of Haitian Americans in the 1990s lived in the New York metropolitan area (see New York, New York) or in south Florida. There are also substantial Haitian communities in Boston, Massachusetts; Newark, New Jersey; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Orlando, Florida; and Washington, D.C. Haitians in Canada are overwhelmingly concentrated in Montreal, Quebec, home to 85 percent of the total population. Haitians remain among the poorest of all immigrant groups.
Haiti’s history is unique in the Western Hemisphere. The island of Hispaniola, of which the country of Haiti forms the western third, was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. France gained control of the western part of the island in 1697, naming it Saint-Domingue and establishing a slave-based, plantation economy. A slave insurrection beginning in 1791 led to the establishment of the first black-controlled state in the Western Hemisphere in 1804. As a result, significant numbers of French colonists immigrated to the United States, especially to New Orleans, Louisiana, often bringing their slaves with them. Poor and politically weak throughout its history, Haiti was occupied by U.S. Marines (1915–34) in order to restore political and financial stability and thus to discourage other nations from intervening. The dictatorships of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1957–71) and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (1971–86) led to an increasing disparity of wealth in Haiti. Fewer than 40,000 Haitians emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them professionals, the well educated, and the upper classes.
By 1972, when poor Haitians began leaving their country in large numbers, two push factors were clearly evident. First and most important, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In 1994, per capita income was still only $817, and half the population was unemployed. Second, many Haitians were seeking personal freedom and fleeing the repressive violence of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s secret police. It is estimated that more than 60,000 Haitians arrived in south Florida in small sailboats between 1971 and 1981, with thousands of others dying in the attempt. With the Duvaliers as cold war allies, the United States refused to grant Haitians refugee status and routinely deported them. Though the administration of President Jimmy Carter granted these “boat people” special Cuban-Haitian Entrant Status in 1980, U.S. policy throughout the 1980s and 1990s opposed an expansion of Haitian immigration.
In 1990, the first democratic election in Haitian history brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, slowing the pace of immigration. A 1991 military coup ousting Aristide led some 35,000 Haitians to flee the country on rafts, seeking asylum in the United States or at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. By May 1992, 12,500 boat people had crowded into the refugee center at Guantánamo Bay. Arguing that most of the fleeing Haitians were simply seeking economic opportunity rather than political protection, on May 24, 1992, President George H. W. Bush issued an executive order to intercept Haitians at sea and return them to Haiti, where they could apply for asylum at the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. Eventually about 10,500 boat people were granted asylum. A 1994 ruling granting political asylum interviews at sea led to a new surge of Haitian attempts to sail to the United States. In January 1995, the U.S. government returned 4,000 potential Haitian immigrants who had been housed at Guantánamo Bay, arguing that they were no longer at risk following the return to power of Aristide. Another coup against the Aristide government in February 2004 led to concerns in the United States that a new wave of boat people would seek sanctuary in Florida. Though no major movements ensued, the Haitian situation demonstrated once again the close relationship between political stability in the Caribbean and U.S. immigration policy.
The earliest Haitians in Canada were slaves brought from Saint-Dominigue during the 18th century, though their numbers were extremely small, perhaps fewer than 10. A more significant migration came during the 1950s and 1960s, as more than 200,000 Haitians left their country, most bound for the United States and other Caribbean countries, but a few settling in Canada. After 1970, individual Haitians began to immigrate in larger numbers, with significant influxes in 1976, 1980–81, and 1991. From the mid-1980s, about two-thirds of Haitians came under family reunification provisions and mainly settled in Quebec. By 1992, there were about 36,000 Haitians in Canada, and 10 years later, more than twice that number. Of 52,625 immigrants in 2001, 17,275 arrived between 1991 and 2001. Although Montreal was still the preferred destination for most Haitian immigrants, an increasing number chose jobs over culture, slightly increasing the number in Ontario. In 1991, 94.5 percent of Haitians in Canada lived in Quebec; 10 years later the figure had declined to 90 percent.