A change to US immigration law, worth up to $400m to Haiti, potentially offers a new perspective on development strategy
Here's a radical idea for recession-hit aid donors: relax your borders, even just a little bit, and dramatically increase your contribution to development without spending a penny. If that sounds like a pretty far-fetched proposal at a time when toxic immigration debates are ongoing around the world, there's already an unlikely precedent.
In January, the US added Haiti to the list of 50-odd countries eligible for temporary work visas. Now, US employers are free to hire Haitians under the H-2A and H-2B visa programmes for short-term agricultural work and other seasonal employment opportunities, for instance in the hotel, food, and construction industries. It's a small change, but one that Michael Clemens, senior fellow at the Washington-based Centre for Global Development, estimates could "unlock" hundreds of millions of dollars for Haitian workers and their families.
Clemens helped lead efforts to convince US government officials to extend work visas to Haitian migrants. Shortly after the 2010 earthquake, he called on the US to issue a limited number of "golden door" visas to people from Haiti and other poor countries. Changing US immigration laws could do more good for Haiti than any amount of foreign aid, he argued, strengthening remittance flows and putting cash directly in the pockets of poor families.
His suggestions were met with predictable resistance. But soon he had a more specific, concrete proposal – get Haiti into the H-2A and H-2B temporary visa programmes for agricultural and other seasonal work – and a growing group of supporters, including representatives of the Florida state congress and organisations such as the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the American Jewish World Service.
The argument was partly mathematical. Remittances to Haiti were already valued at almost $2bn a year, nearly twice what the US pledged in aid for post-earthquake reconstruction. By Clemens' calculations, if just 2,000 Haitians could work in the US each year, they could add up to $400m in additional income for Haitian families over 10 years.
Clemens hopes this analysis will add weight to broader efforts to look for potential development gains across the whole range of government polices, above and beyond those focused on aid and trade. It is not a new argument, but it is perhaps an easier case to make at a time of tightened budgets.
Clemens believes temporary labour migration could be a powerful tool in responding to large-scale disasters, the frequency of which is predicted to rise in the future. But this will require a shift of mentality. "When you have people who are so focused on aid and relief efforts in terms of sending money to a particular place, things like this just aren't on the radar," he says.
Last year, migrant workers sent over $350bn home to developing countries around the world, up 8% on 2010. The size and relative stability of these flows have fuelled growing interest in how to make migration policies work for development.
Human Rights Watch, are among those who argue that the conditions under which many migrants workers live should temper optimism about remittances as a growing source of funding for developing countries.
Guest-worker schemes have particularly bad reputations. The southern poverty law centre has said the American H-2 programmes, which tie temporary visas to specific employment contracts, come "close to slavery". Other reports, including a 2010 study by the US government accountability office, have helped document the extent of fraud and abuse.
In the case of Haiti, one of the most comprehensive studies on remittances to the country ends on a sobering note. "Before we can speak about a collective role for Haitian migrants in their country's reconstruction, we must take their individual immigrant experiences more seriously by providing support to improve their material condition abroad," wrote the study's authors, from the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank and Tufts University.
Clemens argues these concerns would not justify excluding Haiti from America's largest employment-based visa programme. "It is way better for people who happen to be born in places where there is little economic opportunity to have the chance to work elsewhere for a few years," he says. "With all of their imperfections, they are vastly better than sealing the border."
He points to New Zealand's federal guest-worker programme for migrants from the Pacific islands as a case where rights concerns have been better addressed.
This is tricky territory, and more thinking needs to be done on how to join up efforts to leverage remittances for development with ongoing struggles to improve the rights of migrant workers. It would be devastating, for example, if development-based arguments for expanding guest-worker programmes undermined campaigns for better conditions. One thing is certain, however: if remittances continue to rise – and they're expected to top $440bn by 2014 – we're likely to hear a whole lot more about the role migration, remittances, and guest-worker programmes can play in generating new ideas and new money for development.
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